Plaschke: This was a game that the Clippers couldn't lose

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Tuesday, June 22, 2021, Phoenix, Arizona - Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue leads an animated huddles during a break in the action against the Phoenix Suns in Game two of the NBA Western Conference Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue leads an animated huddle during Game 2 in Phoenix on Tuesday night. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

How did that happen?

How does Deandre Ayton sneak through the entire Clippers defense to get to the rim?

How does Jae Crowder put that pass in the perfect spot for Ayton to dunk it?

How does all this happen with less than a second remaining in the game?

How? How? How?

This was too crazy even for the Clippers Curse. This was too cruel even for a franchise that had endured seemingly every possible indignity in 37 years in Los Angeles.

This didn’t seem fair, didn’t feel right and didn’t appear real.

But believe it. And believe that, for a Clippers team back on the edge of a cliff in a postseason full of them, it looks bad. It looks real bad. They may be finally running out of room.

They not only trail the Phoenix Suns two games to none in the Western Conference finals, but they just lost a game they had seemingly won, on an alley-oop from hell.

With nine-tenths of a second left Tuesday night, the Suns’ Crowder threw a perfect inbounds lob to Ayton, who had slipped past a screened Ivica Zubac and a slow Nicolas Batum to gently dunk the pass through the rim for a 104-103 victory at Phoenix Suns Arena.

“Jae made a great pass, I just finished,” Ayton told ESPN afterward. “I didn’t know that it counted.”

Oh, it counted all right. And if the Clippers can’t manage an unimaginable third straight comeback from a two-games-to-none deficit in this postseason, you can count on it haunting them all summer.

“I’ve played in a lot of games in this league. This one is hard, this one goes up there. … This is a hard one to kind of swallow,” Patrick Beverley said. “You look at this game, we got this game won.”

This game indeed seemingly was over. The Clippers had bloodied a nose, battered a star, bullied an arena, and apparently were in control when Paul George went to the foul line with 8.2 seconds left and the Clippers leading by one.

Remember, the Clippers were the best free-throw percentage team in NBA history this season.

Yet George missed them both. It was only the second time this season that the 87% free-throw shooter missed both attempts.

“Pat told no lies,” George said. “This one does hurt.”

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton scores over Clippers center Ivica Zubac.
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton scores over Clippers center Ivica Zubac with 0.7 seconds left in Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference finals Tuesday in Phoenix. (Matt York / Associated Press)

It especially hurt that “Playoff P” reverted to “Playoff Phew!” by making just 10 of 23 shots and hitting but one of eight three-pointers before missing the two biggest free throws of the season.

While acknowledging that his missed free throws were an “opportunity missed,” George added, “I’m not going to put too much on that. ... Fact of matter is, we were still in position to win the game."

Truly, the Clippers seemed to have won this prizefight seconds after George’s bricks when the Suns’ Mikal Bridges missed an open corner three-pointer with 3.3 seconds left. But the Clippers knocked the rebounds out of bounds, setting up one of the most memorable inbounds plays in NBA postseason history.

“Sucks to be right there and lose,” Reggie Jackson said.

There was still seven-tenths of a second on the clock, and the Clippers played it out with a floor-length pass that George threw up in vain after the buzzer, but the dunk did it, changing this series in ways that the Clippers perhaps cannot fix.

As the crowd roared in joy and disbelief, the Clippers trudged off the floor shaking their heads in wonder.

How could they have stolen this game and then still lost it?

Their Beverley-led defense hounded Suns star Devin Booker into a bloody nose — Beverley head-butted him — and the emerging superstar scored just 20 points on five-for-16 shooting. And the Clippers still lost.

They benefited from a 10-point fourth quarter from Luke Kennard, a double-double from Zubac, and George hitting a couple of big shots down the stretch. And the Clippers still lost.

They seemingly had beaten a Suns team without star Chris Paul, but now Paul could be returning from the COVID-19 protocols for Thursday’s Game 3 at Staples Center. They apparently had escaped with another win without sore-kneed Kawhi Leonard, but there’s no telling when or if Leonard is returning.

Clippers-Suns finals schedule
Clippers-Suns finals schedule (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

This was their chance to stay in this series, and that chance disappeared in one big slam, and now what?

“We got to get the job done, we’ve got to get the job done,” Crowder crowed to his teammates on the court before the game.

So they did.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue showed that same insistence during his pregame news conference when he was asked about the familiarity of being down two games to none in the previous two series.

“I don't want to see that again,” he said with a laugh. “I'm tired of seeing that.”

Lue made it clear that this time, that deficit would be a bigger hurdle.

“I think it's tough now ... it's hard to get behind 0-2 and just have to keep fighting from behind,” he said. “It takes a lot out of you.”

And so it has.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.