It’s true, they really are not dead. It sounds dramatic and improbable, when you put it like that, and maybe it is: After all, they’ve been playing without Kawhi Leonard for more than two weeks now, since Game 4 of their second-round series. All they’ve done since then is win consecutive games to bounce the top-seeded Utah Jazz and punch their own ticket to the conference finals, thump the world-beating second-seeded Phoenix Suns when down 2-0 in the series, and then stave off elimination Monday night with an impressive 116-102 road win. They’re a long way from healthy and whole, but what they are is still alive, and that’s not nothing.
Monday night it was Paul George, repurposed second banana, whose heroics forestalled the grave. George has earned and taken a lot of shit in his career for wilting in the playoffs, mostly as a hyped co-star who failed to rise to the moment when opposing defenses zeroed in on his team’s main guy and pushed him into a bigger role. The situation this year is different, with Kawhi all the way out and the team as a result freed from any serious expectations. Losing without your two-time Finals MVP is perfectly forgivable so long as your effort can at all be described as valiant, and George seems to have embraced the position of long-shot underdog. Monday night he broke loose for an ultra-efficient 41 points on 20 shots, including a whopping 30 points on just 12 shots in the second half, when the Clippers swatted away Phoenix’s one half-serious run and methodically extended their lead back out to double-digits.
With just under five minutes to go in the third quarter and the Suns within six, George brought the ball up the left side, used a Pat Beverley screen to shed Mikal Bridges, and used a cool behind-the-back step-back dribble to send Chris Paul pinwheeling off to hell:
George and unlikely teammate DeMarcus Cousins talked after the game about George’s sorry playoff reputation—Cousins called it “trolling bullshit” and lamented the “internet [controlling] the narrative” about players—with a detectable relief, as if gaudy numbers and the Clippers’ current inspiring run will recast George once and for all as a clutch playoff performer. This gets to the whole vibe of this series: It is nice and good that the Clippers haven’t rolled over and died and I am proud of them, but also right now the absolute most that can be said of them is that they technically have a chance. Teams have come back from 3-1 series deficits just 13 times in NBA history; the present is influenced not at all, in practical terms, by that track record, but it’s a clean and handy way of reminding yourself that teams that fall behind 3-1 in a given playoff series generally do so because they are the crappier of the two teams. The Suns finished the regular season with the second-best record in the league, they’re the healthier team, and they jumped out to such a big series lead because they’re real good. The Clippers may not be fully dead yet, but they are, in the timeless words of Miracle Max, mostly dead.
On the other hand! Two things jump out about this series and give it a little more juice than it might otherwise have: First, Clippers head coach Ty Lue has a really astonishingly strong record in all playoff games with a series on the line:
Again, history does not tug on the present, and Lue will not be able to wave that tweet around and have it show up on the scoreboard if the Clippers are down a couple possessions inside the last minute of Game 6. But it’s fair to say the man has a knack for pulling the correct strings in do-or-die playoff games, and that’s a factor that will give his players some confidence going forward.
The other factor that will boost their sense of what’s possible is their opponent. The Suns haven’t been to a conference final since 2010; head coach Monty Williams has never led a conference finalist; only two Suns rotation players have ever played in a conference final, and one of them is Torrey Craig, who is only barely a part of Williams’s playoff rotation. Worse, their steady veteran and best or co-best player, Chris Paul, has his own unfortunate playoff reputation. This is just the second time in 16 seasons and 13 playoff appearances that Paul has advanced out of the second round; in an extremely awkward turn of events, the Suns are a shocking, unsustainable 13 points better by net rating in this series with him off the floor. It would be delicious and hysterical and also sickeningly cruel if Paul’s return from COVID quarantine, with his team in a commanding lead and all but packed for their first Finals appearance since 1993, was what doomed the Suns to a gut-churning come-from-ahead loss to Paul’s former team. It would also be sort of cosmically correct, and for that reason alone you simply cannot rule it out.
So even if the Clippers sort of feel like a dead team walking, Lue’s track record, including across these playoffs, Phoenix’s lack of track record, and Paul’s extremely glaring personal track record all encourage a kind of distant optimism that this all might amount to something more than the favorite taking the scenic route to the Finals. Maybe George’s heroics will amount to more than extended stat-padding across what is essentially series garbage time; maybe Paul’s discouraging return to action will sink his own damn team and cement his legacy as a cursed playoff performer; maybe Lue’s outrageous luck in elimination games will be more than sample-size theater. Or maybe the Clippers are in fact already dead, and just don’t know it yet.