The LA Clippers stared down a pair of 0-2 deficits and never flinched, becoming the first team in league history to bounce back from such disadvantages on multiple occasions in the same postseason.
So believe it when Paul George says, “I expect us to get better as the series goes,” or when DeMarcus Cousins vows the Clippers will “adjust” at some point soon in this Western Conference finals series against the Phoenix Suns.
“After Game 1, we can see what they are trying to do and how can we adjust,” Clippers center Ivica Zubac said. “Obviously, it would be perfect if other teams would adjust to us. But our series with Dallas and Utah went to seven and six [games], so other teams had more time to prepare for us. That’s how it is, and we’ve got to embrace it. We’re going to make our adjustments.”
They’ve certainly proven adept at the chess game on the hardwood against some of the NBA’s brightest stars heading into Tuesday’s Game 2 at Phoenix Suns Arena.
To open the playoffs, LA lost the first two games against a high-octane Dallas Mavericks squad led by Luka Doncic, before winning four of the next five to snatch away the series. In the conference semifinals, the Clippers ran off four in a row against a hobbled Donovan Mitchell and the top-seeded Utah Jazz after losing the first two outings.
This series could start out similarly considering coach Tyronn Lue officially ruled out leading scorer Kawhi Leonard for Game 2 against a Suns squad that George believes is “a different caliber team than the other two teams we faced.” Forward Marcus Morris Sr. (knee) “is still experiencing some soreness,” according to Lue, though he is not listed on the Game 2 injury report.
In the face of all that adversity, LA’s confidence hasn’t waned. Devin Booker drilled the Clippers in Game 1 for a 40-point triple-double, but the Clippers believe they’ve already identified different ways to minimize the All-Star guard’s impact as the series progresses. Lue said his team consistently picked up Booker too high on the floor in Game 1, giving “him too much real estate to attack downhill,” which in turn placed the team’s big men in difficult situations, as the Suns guard pummeled the Clippers with his mid-range game.
“We have to be more heels to the three, try to shrink the floor as much as possible, and that gives our bigs a chance to set up and make a play in close quarters,” Lue said. “I thought they did a good job of just picking our defense apart for the most part. We made some mistakes. But like I said, Devin Booker did a great job of knowing what play he wanted to make when we fired at him to try to double-team. When we blitzed the pick-and-roll, they know exactly where their guys wanted to be, and they put us in some tough positions. They did a good job of executing their game plan offensively.”
While Doncic and Mitchell specialized in the first two rounds at using the 3-ball to inflict damage, Booker presents a different challenge given his ability to hurt opponents with both his 3-point shooting and mid-range game, not to mention his proficiency at finishing at the bucket.
“With Luka and Donovan, you have to be up at the level of the screen,” Zubac explained. “With the guys who like the mid-range more, you don’t have to be that high up. That’s really a big difference for me when guarding the pick-and-roll.”
Suns center Deandre Ayton also poses somewhat of a unique challenge, given the differences in his game compared to LA’s opponents over the first two rounds. Kristaps Porzingis pretty much played the role of floor-spreading decoy for Dallas in the first round of the playoffs, while Rudy Gobert – despite his immense rim-protecting ability – isn’t as athletic in defensive rotations or as adept at finishing at the rim as Ayton.
Ayton dropped 20 points in Game 1 on 10-for-14 from the field to go with nine rebounds, as Phoenix won the battle of the boards 43-39.
“Ayton is a little bit more agile, a little bit more [of a] presence down low,” George said. “Better finisher than the bigs we faced. So, it’s going to be a challenge. That’s definitely what we’ve got to work on.”
With LA’s leading scorer out indefinitely in Leonard, Lue believes reserve point guard Rajon Rondo needs to take on a more vital role in the series. When Reggie Jackson and George leave the games, the Clippers can’t play through Leonard the way they usually do.
Rondo scored 8 points on 3-of-5 shooting in Game 1 with seven assists over the course of 22 minutes.
“I think we need his pace and the way he generates shots for Luke Kennard, Nic Batum, finding Cousins a lot,” Lue said. “His pace is very important, especially when you lose a scorer like Kawhi, who is our leading scorer. You need somebody who is going to generate pace and generate shots for other guys, as well. He’s got to be confident taking his shots. He made two 3s last game, which is good to see. But he brings more than shooting: his IQ, pace, getting guys shots, a vocal leader. We need all that. It doesn’t come from just making shots and scoring the basketball. We need all the other intangibles that he brings.”
What the Clippers don’t need, though, is a boost in confidence. There’s plenty of that, wrought from extensive experience in bouncing back from adverse situations so far this postseason. The upcoming challenge becomes a tad more daunting considering the uncertainty regarding Morris and Leonard, as both are undergoing around-the-clock treatment in efforts to return to the lineup as soon as possible.
Without Leonard in the lineup for the last two games of the conference semifinals, the Clippers beat Utah by a combined margin of 20 points.
“So, we’ll plan on correcting those mistakes [from Game 1], righting the wrongs, and obviously adjusting and looking forward to a better showing,” Cousins said.
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