The Los Angeles Clippers aren’t ready to have their season end.
Despite not having first-team All-NBA selection Kawhi Leonard and starting center Ivica Zubac, both out with knee injuries, the fourth-seeded Clippers defeated the second-seeded Phoenix Suns, 116-102, in Monday’s Game 5 of the Western Conference finals before 16,664 fans at Phoenix Suns Arena.
“It’s just unacceptable the way we started the game,” said Suns coach Monty Williams as the Suns trailed by as many as 15 points in the first quarter. “It was a big blow for us. It’s pretty obvious we can’t play with a show-up mentality. We showed up in the first quarter and they played with desperation. Simple and plain.”
Paul George scored a game-high 41 points to lead the Clippers as the Suns must now head back to Los Angeles for Wednesday’s Game 6, up 3-2 in this best-of-7 series.
“We thrive in this moment,” George said. “We come together even more so in these moments. This team is just made up of toughness, all across the roster. We’re going to give it everything we got and we’ll live with the results.”
If there’s a Game 7, it will be played Friday in Phoenix.
“We’ll be ready to go for Game 6,” said Suns All-Star Devin Booker, who made adjustments with the mask as he shot 4-of-6 from 3 in Game 5. That’s a tough loss for us definitely with a chance to clinch going to an NBA Finals. We’re going to be ready.”
Trailing by as many as 16 points, the Suns took a 62-61 lead, which was their last lead of the game, in the third quarter, but the Clippers answered with an 18-5 run to go up, 79-67, with 4:21 remaining in the quarter.
Phoenix then pulled within four, 98-94, with 6:58 left in the game, but Reggie Jackson scored eight points on a 10-2 run to give the Clippers an 108-96 advantage, forcing Williams to call a timeout with 4:47 left.
“They played with determination,” Williams said. “We have to realize we’re trying to close out a series against a team that’s been there before and they’re going to claw and scratch and do whatever it takes. We have to have that mentality.”
Jackson scored 23 points, Marcus Morris Sr. dropped 22 with 20 coming in the first half and DeMarcus Cousins added 15 in 11 minutes.
“We’ve got to be able to guard the ball,” Williams said. “They hit some tough shots and you give them credit, (but) they had 58 points in the paint. That’s not something you would’ve expected, especially with them not having Zubac.”
Without Zubac, Cousins helped fuel that inside dominance off the bench despite the Clippers starting and playing mostly small. Scoring 10 points in the first half, Cousins came into Game 5 having scored total of three points in Game 2, 3 and 4 as he didn’t play in Game 3.
“When you have to double guys like that, it forces you into rotations,” Williams said. “We didn’t meet him early. We let him get right to the block tonight. He got wherever he wanted for the time he was in the game as he was a presence tonight..
The Suns compounded matters by giving up 23 points off their 14 turnovers.
“That was uncharacteristic of us, especially me,” said Suns All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who got stripped by Cousins in the first half that led to a Cousins’ coast-to-coast layup. “I had a couple of turnovers early in the game, first and second quarter, and they converted on all of them. That’s uncharacteristic of us and we’ve got to be better Game 6.”
Booker paced the Suns with 31 points while Paul added 22 as Phoenix allowed 58 points in the paint. In contrast, Phoenix only had 32 paint points as center Deandre Ayton, who had a noticeable size advantage, managed just 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting.
“We will be better in the next game,” Williams said. “That’s paramount on my mind right now is we got to play with way more force and competitive edge and we got to guard the ball.”
Looking to return to the NBA Finals for the third time in franchise history and the first time since 1993, Phoenix still has two opportunities to win one more game and return to the championship round after an 11-year playoff drought.
Still, the Suns losing Monday served as a reminder of how tough it’s going to be to finish a series with a spot in the finals on the line.
“It’s what the playoffs are about,” Suns wing Cam Johnson said. “It’s tough and that’s what everybody said it would be and you can’t just expect a team to roll over.”
The Clippers are now 3-0 when facing elimination in this year’s playoffs.
This series could be 3-1 our way, 3-2 our way,” Morris said. “It is what it is. We’re sticking to the game plan, and today was a good day for us. We shot the ball really well. We came out with a lot of energy, played tough. We’ve got another chance to go back to L.A. and force Game 7 back here.”
The Clippers came back from a 3-2 deficit to top the fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round. They were down 2-0 to the Mavs and the top-seeded Utah Jazz in the conference semifinals, but took the next four against the Jazz to reach the conference finals.
Los Angeles has been without Leonard since he suffered a right knee sprain in Game 4 of the conference semifinals.
The Clippers started the conference finals down 2-0 as Deandre Ayton’s lob dunk with 0.7 seconds left gave the Suns a dramatic 104-103 Game 2 win in Phoenix.
They won Game 3, but dropped Game 4 Saturday, 84-80, as Zubac hurt his knee in that game.
The Suns finished 1-2 against the Clippers during the regular season. They reached the conference finals the last time they made the playoffs in 2010 before losing to the late Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in six games.
This is the first trip to the conference finals for the Clippers.
The Clippers-Suns series winner will face the either the third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks or fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the finals that’ll begin either July 6 or 8.
If the Bucks-Hawks series winner goes six games or less, the finals will start July 6. If it goes seven games, the finals will start July 8.
Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals will be Tuesday in Atlanta. Milwaukee has a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series.
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