This time, Paul George didn’t flinch. Playoff P showed up and dragged the Los Angeles Clippers back from the brink.
George scored 27 points and the Clippers pulled away in a dominant third quarter, beating newly returned Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns 106-92 on Thursday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
”We continue to chip away, try to find ways we can be better and impose our will on opponents,” Clippers guard Reggie Jackson said. ”We showed a lot of heart, a lot of fight.”
The Clippers cut their series deficit to 2-1, ending the Suns’ franchise-record playoff winning streak at nine games.
”Our guys keep grinding, keep fighting,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. ”We never give in.”
Kawhi Leonard remained out with a right knee sprain, leaving George to carry the load again. After missing two crucial free throws in a one-point loss in Game 2, George had 15 rebounds and eight assists and played a game-high 43 minutes. He made 6 of 7 free throws.
”I knew I had to be better,” George said. ”All my energy was directed toward a better game.”
The Suns got Paul back after he missed the first two games while being sidelined since June 16 because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols. The former Clipper, who was booed heartily during intros, had 15 points and 12 assists, but was 5 of 19 from the field.
”I have to get better. I shot terrible,” Paul said. ”You could tell they had a lot more energy. I got to pick up the pace.”
Cameron Payne, who so ably filled in for Paul in the first two games, went down with a left ankle injury after playing four minutes and didn’t return.
”We missed him a lot,” Suns guard Devin Booker said.
Suns coach Monty Williams said he played Paul too much in his first game back.
”Probably got tired,” Williams said, ”but it hurt us when Cam couldn’t come back so I left Chris out there for a longer stretch and that’s on me.”
Deandre Ayton led the Suns with 18 points.
Jackson added 23 points for the Clippers, and Ivica Zubac had 15 points and tied his career playoff-high with 16 rebounds.
Game 4 is Saturday night at Staples Center.
After Phoenix won the first two games by a combined seven points, the teams played a close first half. George pumped up the Clippers going into the locker room with a thunderous one-handed dunk.
”That probably killed their momentum a little bit,” Jackson said. ”We’re fortunate to have a guy like that that can do a little bit of everything.”
Los Angeles quickly went to work in the second half in front of 17,222 raucous, Thunder Stix-pounding fans.
”We knew we had to take care of homecourt,” George said. ”We had to match their scrappiness. We can’t allow this team to play harder than us.”
The Clippers took control with the biggest run of the game, a 21-3 spurt that left them leading 71-56 in the third. Terance Mann got it going with six straight points and Jackson scored four in a row before George scored inside. Zubac dunked off George’s pass and made a pair of free throws. The Suns were limited to a 3-pointer by Paul.
”They just brought it,” Williams said. ”We just didn’t match their force.”
Booker picked up his third and fourth fouls in a 42-second span during the Clippers’ run. Booker – wearing a clear mask to protect his broken nose after he and Patrick Beverley banged heads in Game 2 – was 5 of 21 from the field, making only one of seven 3-point tries, and finished with 15 points.
Jae Crowder, who assisted on Deandre Ayton’s winning dunk on Tuesday, fouled out with 4:51 remaining. He had nine points, six rebounds and six assists.
The Suns were just 35 of 90 from the floor, despite getting decent looks.
”We weren’t sound at all,” Williams said. ”They played good defence, but we didn’t run our offence the way that we have been running for most of the playoffs.”
George capped the third by banking in a 3-pointer from just inside midcourt, and it beat the buzzer, stunning the fans and sending the Clippers into the fourth leading 80-69. He turned to the sideline and blew a kiss to his fiancé and their kids.
”I didn’t call glass, but I felt great about the shot,” said George, who attempts similar shots in pre-game. ”That was one that we needed.”