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Opinion: Fatigue hurt Clippers in Game 4 loss vs. Suns more than Paul George missed free throws, offensive struggles

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LOS ANGELES — Nearly 90 minutes passed after the Los Angeles Clippers suffered an 84-80 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Saturday in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. So before Clippers forward Paul George emerged into the interview room, he had plenty to digest while completing his post-game workout.

The Clippers face a 3-1 deficit, and their season could end with a decisive Game 5 in Phoenix on Tuesday. No signs suggest Kawhi Leonard could return after missing the past six games with a right knee injury. The Clippers went scoreless for just over four minutes. And with the Clippers trailing 81-78 with seven seconds left, George missed his first free throw before intentionally missing the second in hopes of salvaging the possession.

Can the resilient Clippers overcome this? Or is this moment too frustrating to stomach?

"You got to. It’s the playoffs. You got to move on to the next one," George said. "Regardless, tonight’s game is over with and it’s on to the next one. As a veteran, you just learn not to let games linger. I’ve done a good job of doing that. I still live a wonderful life and still have an amazing family. I’m on top of the world regardless of the outcome. Just move on and get ready for the next one."

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No one doubts whether the Clippers will get ready for the next one. They have overcome 0-2 series deficits against the Dallas Mavericks and the Utah Jazz. Though Terance Mann conceded facing a 3-1 deficit is "definitely a different feeling," Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said the challenge is "very doable."

The Clippers surely have the mental toughness. But do they have the legs? They have played 17 games in 36 nights, and have played every other day since June 2. It’s hard not to wonder if that played a role in the Clippers shooting 32.5% from the field and 16.1% from 3-point range.

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"It could be, but there is no excuse this time of the season," Lue said. "Our guys might be a little tired. But we have to fight through it. I have no problem with the way we fought and the way we competed. Every single guy on the floor gave us what we had. But offensively, we didn’t have it tonight."

Neither did the Suns. They shot only 36% from the field and 20% from 3-point range. But they were able to dig deeper. Deandre Ayton relied on his athleticism (19 points, 22 rebounds). Devin Booker leaned on his toughness after ditching his mask to protect his battered nose (25 points) before fouling out. Chris Paul leaned on his smarts while shedding rust in his second game since staying sidelined for eight because of the league’s health and safety protocols (18 points, seven assists). The Suns have navigated this after having a week off to rest and prepare against the Clippers after sweeping the Denver Nuggets in the second round.

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As for the Clippers? They looked fried. George (23 points), Reggie Jackson (20), Ivica Zubac (13) and Mann (12) cracked double figures. During their scoreless stretch in the fourth quarter from 10:07 to 6:00, the Clippers missed three 3-pointers, two jumpers and two layups while also committing two turnovers. When the Suns smartly fouled George to avoid the Clippers potentially forcing overtime with a game-winning 3-pointer, it did not appear George had the right lift to make his first foul shot.

"I’m not going to let that be an excuse or have something to fall back on," George said. "I feel good and I’m out there."

In fairness, the game could have tilted the other way. What if DeMarcus Cousins successfully intentionally missed his second foul shot instead of hitting the ball off the backboard while the Clippers trailed 81-79 with 5.8 seconds left? What if Nicolas Batum was not called for being out-of-bounds with 7.8 seconds left, while trailing 79-78? What if the Clippers did not commit a shot-clock violation during their drought?

Paul George and the Clippers are facing elimination.
Paul George and the Clippers are facing elimination.

All fair points. But there were signs already that the Clippers’ fatigue was getting the best of them. The most notable example occurred in their Game 2 loss that also ended with George missing a pair of free throws before Ayton converted on a lob play with 0.7 seconds left. The other example occurred in their Game 1 loss. That game took place only 36 hours after beating the Jazz in Game 6. Though all teams have had to play every other day in hopes of ending the season before the Olympics, it’s not clear why the Clippers were scheduled for an afternoon game instead of an evening one.

"It’s a battle of attrition," Jackson said. "Guys are doing everything they can to get their rest and recovery and come back in the best possible shape they can to find a way to be successful. It’s a crazy schedule. It’s going fast. But we’ve all been dealt with the same cards. We know we have to get ready for this challenge in Game 5. It’s going to be a mental battle and physical battle between two great teams."

It will be a mental and physical battle likely once again without Leonard, who has watched the game with his family in a suite instead of playing on the court.

"If he’s not 100%, we don’t want him out there," George said. "That’s as a brother and as a teammate. His health is what’s most important. I can’t speak on the extent of his injury or what he can and cannot give us. His health is more important than anything else."

That leaves the Clippers in a precarious position. No doubt they will fight to overcome a 3-1 series deficit as Lue helped the Cleveland Cavaliers do the same thing against the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals. But as the Clippers showed in Game 4 through missed shots and missed free throws, they appear to be running on empty.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Clippers fatigued vs. Suns in Game 4 loss to fall behind 3-1