Guys Can Only Get You So Far
9:01 AM EDT on July 1, 2021
There was a moment in the second quarter of Wednesday's Game 5 where Pat Beverley, navigating a positional mismatch, stripped Dario Saric in the paint. Saric went to the floor, teammate Torrey Craig got tangled up in the action, the ball caromed to Marcus Morris Sr., and the Clippers, down six, raced ahead in transition. This was an all-too-rare stop for a Clippers team playing small and on tired legs, and an equally rare opportunity for a cheap bucket, but the rewards failed to materialize: The play-by-play records the sequence wrapping up with a failed alley-oop pass from Morris—not exactly your traditional fast-break playmaker—to, of all people, Nic Batum, who is for sure not your traditional aerial threat. I had the thought—and even posted in Defector work Slack—that the Clippers at that moment were featuring a little too much Morris, who under most circumstances is an offense's fourth or fifth option, and in an ideal situation might not even be in the starting lineup.
What I needed to do was take a harrowing look at the box score and remind myself, for like the sixth time since Kawhi Leonard was shelved with a knee injury all the way back on June 16, that Morris was by a wide margin the team's second-best available guy. Featuring a little less Morris, in an elimination game in the actual Western Conference Finals, would've meant tilting a little more of the offense ... where? Toward Pat Beverley, whose 11 unlikely first-half points were more than he'd scored in any game in the series? Toward Reggie Jackson, who played heroically across the series but couldn't throw it in the ocean Wednesday night? The options only got more grim from there: DeMarcus Cousins led the Clippers' second unit in shot attempts despite playing just 14 minutes; after that we're talking Batum and Luke Kennard. It is axiomatic that a team can only feature so many former Detroit Pistons in prominent rotation jobs before any hope of success collapses under the strain. We've already named three, and that might be two too many.
With Paul George looking exhausted from the game's opening tip, it fell to Morris, Beverley, Jackson, Cousins, Batum, Kennard, and Terance Mann to finish possessions and cobble together enough buckets to keep the Clippers within range of a Suns team that in certain configurations and against certain lineups is an absolute nightmare to defend. For a stretch of the first half, when legs were still reasonably fresh, this appeared to have a chance of working. Beverley even put aside his reckless goonery long enough to throw a wicked crossover at Chris Paul and finish with a slick driving layup:
The second half was a different story. Phoenix pushed out to an 18-point lead midway through the third quarter; when the Clippers managed to draw within seven a few minutes later, Suns head coach Monty Williams reinserted Paul, who immediately went on a solo 8-0 run to finish the quarter. Lue, lacking any better options, stuck with a lineup of Jackson, George, Batum, Morris, and Cousins to open the fourth. What he perhaps failed to realize—and may in retrospect have been powerless to withstand—was that the game had already entered Paul Time: With the Clippers running on fumes and a big vulnerable center to target in the pick-and-roll, Paul ripped off 10 of Phoenix's next 12 points on a series of crafty self-made buckets, en route to a 19-point quarter on brutally efficient 7-of-9 shooting, and the Clippers never came close to threatening again.
After it was over, George allowed himself to ruminate on how the series might've gone if Leonard hadn't been injured, and the Clippers had been anywhere close to full strength. "We'd be going on," he said, which hardly sounds like a boast considering how admirably close they came to advancing with a roster that in most seasons you would not predict to finish clear of the play-in tournament in the miserable Eastern Conference. "This series would be a lot different. Talk about one of the best players in the league being out, yet we were inches away from getting to the next round." It wasn't just Kawhi, either: Back spasms that eventually required season-ending surgery robbed Serge Ibaka of most of the last four months of the season, and a sprained MCL knocked out starting center Ivica Zubac, who is no one's idea of a superstar but at least could've banged around with DeAndre Ayton on the glass and set some screens and done some dirty work.
And so the Clippers did what they could with a big pile of guys. It wound up being a lot! The guys should be very proud of themselves! But there's only so much you can do with a big pile of guys. You can steal a couple games and make the music swell and force a contender to take you seriously for a whole week! What you simply cannot do, in the end, is contend for a championship.