'Playoff P' pushes Clippers to brink of first Western Conference finals

After sweeping Games 3 and 4 in Los Angeles, the Clippers traveled to Utah for Game 5 where it looked like the Western Conference semifinals series would go the distance. The Phoenix Suns, who swept their semifinal series, await in the conference finals.

But Kawhi Leonard, who was named to the All-NBA First Team on Tuesday, tweaked his knee late in Game 4. The Clippers fear that he’ll be out indefinitely with an ACL injury. It’s a huge loss to the Clippers after he averaged 32.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and four assists in Games 3 and 4, and it appeared that it could swing the momentum in the series.

It was time for Paul George, who’s averaging 29.2 points this series, to take over.

“He came up to me after the shootaround this morning and said, ‘T, I got this,'” Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue said.

“Anytime you lose a player like Kawhi, especially in the playoffs, teams respond,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said before the game.

The Clippers did respond Wednesday night and took Game 5, 119-111. George finished with 37 points and 16 rebounds. Marcus Morris finished with 25 points, while Reggie Jackson contributed 22.

Paul George flexes and does a mean mug to celebrate a bucket.
Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George celebrates during Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on June 16, 2021. The Clippers won and hold a 3-2 series lead. (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

“It was a total team effort tonight,” Lue said. “We’ve been in this situation before where guys have had to step and be ready to play. Every guy that played tonight contributed, and that’s the team that we have. They’re mentally tough, and we just keep fighting until the end.”

The Jazz started off hot, hitting 17 3-pointers in the first half, but George and the Clippers countered the Jazz’s ridiculous shooting and were down only five points at the half. George had 22 points and eight rebounds in the first half.

“He made a big statement tonight,” Lue said of George’s performance. “He carried us. He had to step up in that first half, and he really dominated defensively.”

“We didn’t overreact when they got hot in the first half,” George added. “We took their blows, we took their punches, but we just thought there was no way they could sustain that over 48 minutes.”

George endured endless chants of boos from a sold-out Vivint Arena of more than 18,000 fans. Every time the Jazz got within reach, George responded and silenced the crowd.

Terance Mann got his 10th start of the season on Wednesday in Leonard’s absence. The second-year guard out of Florida State finished +15 in box plus-minus and added 13 points, including the dunk of the game over Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

“I just wanted to see if I could get him moving,” Mann said with a smile. “I was tired of settling. I got him on my hip, and with a guy like that, you can’t just try and lay it up. You have to go through him.

“Everyone was talking about it in the locker room after the game, and everyone was just encouraging me to keep being aggressive for the next game.”

Mann’s dunk was a momentum changer with 2:38 left in the game and the Clippers up 107-103. The Jazz never came back, even with Donovan Mitchell getting hot late in the fourth quarter and trying to will his team to a late comeback.

There were a lot of people counting out the Clippers without their star player and playing a tough Game 5 on the road. All the Paul George criticism came to a standstill after Game 5 as he proved that he can carry a team in the postseason.

The Clippers are one win from reaching the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history, and George will need to have another incredible performance to reach the next round.

“We’re just going into the next game with the mindset, ‘We don’t want to come back to Utah,’ and look to close it out at home,” George said.

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