LOS ANGELES — The LA Clippers are the only team to come back from 2-0 deficits in the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs, and head coach Ty Lue said they can continue their postseason of comebacks even if the odds are historically slim.
The Clippers went cold in the fourth quarter, including one of the worst shooting droughts in recent playoff history with chances to tie the score or go ahead, before suffering a grueling 84-80 loss to the visiting Phoenix Suns in Game 4 on Saturday night in the Western Conference finals.
Down 3-1 in the series, the Clippers must now stave off elimination in Phoenix in Game 5 on Monday before even thinking about trying to pull off something that has been done only four times in NBA conference finals history.
“We beat Utah and won four games in a row,” Lue said of the Clippers winning the second-round matchup in six games. “So it’s very doable.”
Teams that have led 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have gone on to win 95% (251-13) of the time, including going 52-4 in conference finals history.
But if anyone knows what it takes to beat the odds, it is Lue. As head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, he helped the Cavs win a championship by overcoming a 3-1 deficit to stun the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals.
Lue’s Cavaliers lost the 2017 NBA Finals to the Warriors after trailing 3-1 in that series.
The Clippers, though, will lean on their experience of winning while facing elimination, as they did in Dallas in Game 6 of the first round when they trailed 3-2. They went on to beat the Mavericks in seven games.
But that was when they had Kawhi Leonard, who scored 45 points in that Game 6 win in Dallas. Leonard has missed six straight games because of a sprained right knee, and his status for this series has been in doubt.
Paul George, who had 23 points, 16 rebounds and six assists, doesn’t want to see Leonard try to return for Game 5 if it will put his health at risk.
“I can’t speak for him, to the health of Kawhi,” George said. “If he’s not 100, we don’t want him out there. I mean, that’s just as a brother, as a teammate. His health long term is more important than what’s going on now. I can’t speak on the extent of his injury or, you know, what he [can] and cannot give us. Like I’ve been saying, his health is just more important than anything else.”
Even without Leonard, the Clippers had every chance to win Game 4. They trailed 52-36 early in the third quarter but got within one point later in the quarter, as the Staples Center crowd roared.
But the home fans never got what they so desperately wanted. The Clippers were within 71-70 with 10:07 remaining after George made a free throw. But he missed the second foul shot, and the Clippers would miss 15 of their final 17 shots from the field. George’s missed free throw was one of five missed foul shots in the final 10:07.
Both teams went through an ugly stretch that saw them combine to miss 16 consecutive shots in the fourth quarter, the most consecutive missed shots by both teams in the fourth quarter of a playoff game since the Celtics and Knicks missed 17 straight in Game 3 of their 2013 first-round series, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.
Playing pretty much just eight main guys in the rotation, the Clippers’ legs looked drained. After playing 13 games in 25 days this month, the Clippers finished 0-for-12 in the fourth quarter on shots that could’ve tied the game or taken the lead. That’s the most such attempts without a make in the fourth quarter of a playoff game over the past 25 postseasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Lue acknowledged that weary legs could’ve been the reason for the cold shooting in the fourth, but said, “It’s no excuses at this time of the season. Guys could be a little tired. We’ve just got to fight through. I have no problem with the way we fought, the way we competed. Every single guy on the floor gave us what they had, and offensively it just didn’t happen tonight.”
Adding to the frustration was an out-of-bounds call that the Clippers thought should have been reviewed after a ball went out of bounds off of Nicolas Batum. Batum argued that he poked the ball off of Cameron Payne with 7.8 seconds left. At that point, the Suns were clinging to a 79-78 lead.
“Per rule, if the calling official has no doubt on the play, then play review is not used,” crew chief Zach Zarba told a pool reporter after the game. “The play is reviewable if the official has doubt. In this case, there was no doubt on the out-of-bounds play, so therefore replay wasn’t used.”
Now, the Clippers fly to Phoenix on Sunday before playing to keep their season alive in Game 5 on Monday. The last time they were at Phoenix Suns Arena, George missed two crucial free throws with 8.2 seconds left and the Clippers up by one. The Suns would steal the game 104-103 on an alley-oop pass off the inbounds from Jae Crowder to Deandre Ayton with seven-tenths of a second remaining.
“It’s going to be hard,” George said of coming back to win this series. “It’s going to be tough. But it’s got to be one game at a time. It’s win or go home.”
Added Reggie Jackson, “We’ve been down before. It’s tough. We’ve had our backs against the wall and we’ve been in elimination games. Team is ready, and this team is confident.”