Alexander: Game 6 got away from Clippers, and now what happens?

LOS ANGELES — So what’s next?

The Clippers almost got within range of the promised land. In most cases, “almost” at this stage of the season simply leaves a sour taste in your mouth. But this was different.

This is an organization that is No. 2 in its own city, and this was a group of players who, for the most part, had a lot for which to atone after the 2020 playoffs. Yet the scene inside Staples Center on Wednesday night, even with an ending that the Clippers didn’t want and in fact pretty much ran off the track in the final minutes of a 130-103 elimination game loss to the Phoenix Suns, suggests there’s a lot to build on here.

Their faithful stomped and shrieked, roared and raged, trying to will their team back into a game that started to take on the quality of a WWE exhibition or maybe the movie “Slap Shot” toward the end, with thrills and spills and flops and a former hero turned heel in Chris Paul.

But theirs was the last team standing in L.A., and that should count for something.

And while the Clippers might have fallen short of the eventual goal, the 2020-21 Redemption Tour was a success. These playoffs displayed the type of Clipper grit and competitiveness we saw from this franchise two years ago in a memorable first-round series against the then-dynastic Golden State Warriors. That, too, was a series that went six games, but it wasn’t supposed to last any longer than four. And the defining image might have been Patrick Beverley guarding Kevin Durant straight up during that playoff series and acting like it was not only perfectly normal but perfectly doable.

That was the roots of the street cred on which the Clippers tried to build a marketing plan, the whole “Driven over Given” campaign. That went away after 2020, when the Clippers imploded in the Orlando bubble and the team to which they were comparing themselves won a championship.

Maybe the 2021-22 campaign should simply say, The Grit Is Back. These Clippers faced 2-0 deficits in three consecutive series, an unforgiving every-other-day playoff schedule and a roster that got thinner because of injuries. But instead of quitting they kept coming back for more.

“Get rid of the bubble talk,” was the way Coach Ty Lue put it following Game 6, and I think we can bury it now. And feel free to consider it an alibi if you wish, but it’s a legitimate question: How much differently would this series have looked if Kawhi Leonard had been on the court throughout?

“We don’t know,” fellow All-Star Paul George said. “You talk about one of the best players in the league being out, yet we were inches away from getting to the next round. So definitely it’s a what-if on this.

“The fact of the matter is we just didn’t do enough to win. That’s the reason we’re going home.”

This season and these playoffs provided some blocks with which to build. Among the things we learned? Lue is a darned good coach, and he further demonstrated why with this playoff run.

“He’s one of the best coaches in this league, one of the best young coaches in this league,” Marcus Morris said. “He’s proven that time after time. Doesn’t matter who you have on your team. You still have to coach them. I mean, you know, LeBron (James, who won a ring with Lue in Cleveland) is a great player but he doesn’t win every year. No player wins every year. You have to have a great coach that connects with the players, and he does that.”

Culture, and the talk of building it, has become a cliché in sports. (As is the “great group of guys” meme.) So you can take it with a grain of salt when Morris and George and Reggie Jackson talked of how much they enjoyed this group and how close the locker room was.

Except that Jackson was almost moved to tears talking about this group, which suggests it’s not necessarily cliché.

“It sucks that it fell short,” he said. “But I haven’t had too many better seasons and better locker rooms, better groups.

“This was a family. We really found a way, quickly, found a way to (welcome) guys who were coming in and who were new and found a way to throw last year out the window for those who returned. We came together and we did something special this year. Like I said, fell short of what we really wanted, but yeah, I couldn’t be more proud of the group of guys that we have in the locker room.

“… This city is special to me. I can’t predict the future, I have no idea what happens, but this city, this organization, this fan base is special. It holds a special place in my heart forever. I’ll forever be a Clipper. I’m thankful. I’m thankful for this opportunity. I’m thankful for everybody who has been part of the journey who supported and made this year special.”

If you’re a Clipper fan and you’ve been paying attention, those are heartening words. Jackson can be a free agent, and his performance in these playoffs raised his value considerably. It could have even priced him out of the Clippers’ budget for salary cap purposes. Would he take less to stay?

That’s one major dilemma Lawrence Frank and his front office will face. The other, bigger one? Whether Kawhi Leonard will exercise the player option on the third and final year of his Clippers contract and depart. If he opts out but chooses to re-sign, the build toward a potential championship would seem a lot more achievable than if he leaves.

“I think we’ve both grown, myself and Kawhi,” George said. “I think we really enjoy being teammates, and we see what we can be and what we can do. I’m happy to be his teammate … I think we’ve got a good foundation.”

And yes, George said, he’s willing to do what he can to help keep the gang together.

“Hopefully this is where they want to continue to play and grow and be something and do something special in the long run,” he said. “Yeah, I’m definitely going to try my hardest to recruit.”

The pitch shouldn’t be that difficult.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Alexander: Clippers’ Paul George might not silence critics, but he’s not listening

Paul George’s ears had to have been burning, right?

It seems to be his role, as normally the Clippers’ No. 2 guy and the wingman to Kawhi Leonard, that George also must be the lightning rod, the guy at whom fingers often seem to point when things go wrong.

And so it was, in the second quarter on Monday night in Phoenix when the Suns were chopping away at the Clippers’ big early lead, that ESPN analysts Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy turned their focus to No. 13 in Clippers’ white.

“Paul George to me right now is too casual,” Jackson said late in the half.

“Somebody needs to have a discussion with Paul George right now,” Van Gundy added. “He’s too tentative and it could cost them.”

They are paid to be critical when necessary, of course. And those are mild sentiments compared to what opposing fans and Twitter experts and occasionally exasperated fans of his own team have been known to say. The idea is that sometimes George is too cool, or at least looks too cool, for his own good. Sometimes he makes it look easier than it actually is. Sometimes things go awry, as they did with those missed free throws at the end of Game 2 of this series last week, and in those moments, the critics load up.

And then there are those times when George puts the burden on his surgically-repaired shoulders and carries the whole team with him. That was the case in the second half of Game 5, and especially the third quarter: 20 points in those 12 minutes alone, 7 for 8 from the floor, 3 for 3 on 3-pointers. That helped secure a game that kept the Clippers’ season alive, a 116-102 victory. When the night ended, George had 41 points, the fourth player in franchise history to have a 40-point playoff game, adding 13 rebounds and six assists while making 15 of his 20 shots.

A zero one night, in the eyes of the multitudes, and a hero the next. George has come to terms with it, even if those around him have trouble with it.

“I don’t know where this trollin’ (garbage) is coming from, where the Internet controls the narrative about these players,” center DeMarcus Cousins said, jumping to George’s defense. “It’s becoming foolish. Like I said earlier in the year, that’s one of the most special players that ever laced his shoes. Give this dude his flowers, man. I don’t understand the slander. It’s become quite silly. Respect these players, man. Respect these greats.

“We don’t get caught up in these silly narratives that been pushed by the Internet. Like, we know what Paul brings every night. He’s going to play on both ends of the floor. He’s going to make the right play. He’s unguardable.”

Maybe that’s part of the problem. We see what he’s capable of, and we expect it every night, without fail and at the highest level. Sometimes that style fools us. Sometimes he’s not emotional enough and it leads the public to believe he doesn’t care sufficiently. Other times he’s too emotional, especially after he’s had a foul called on him, and the perception is that he’s whiny.

The idea of accepting him for who and what he is? Still a work in progress.

“PG has been great for us all year,” Coach Ty Lue said. “I just don’t understand why it’s magnified so much when he doesn’t play well, when he has a bad game. A lot of people play bad. I’m just happy he came back and played a great game. We needed every bit of it.”

George was asked if he felt people pick on him more than they do other stars?

“I do,” he said. “And it’s the honest truth. It’s a fact. But I can’t worry about that. It comes with the job, I guess. But it is what it is. I still try to go and dominate, whether I’m shooting the ball well or not shooting the ball well. … To me, it doesn’t come down to just scoring. It’s just being able to play both ends, rebound and make plays for others.

“And so I’m beyond that, you know what I mean? I’m beyond that. I am who I am. I wish I could shoot 80 percent, 75 percent, on a nightly basis, but it’s not realistic. What I can do is do everything else. And so it is what it is. They can judge me on what they want to. That part don’t matter to me. I’m going to go out there and hoop and give it everything I got.”

That won’t mollify his critics, but give him points for being honest with his feelings.

His “Playoff P.” self-description last season was counterproductive, since that’s held over his head now every time he has a difficult game in the postseason. But consider that Leonard hasn’t played since Game 4 of the second-round series against Utah, and the Clippers with George in the driver’s seat vanquished the top-seeded Jazz and are still alive after another 0-2 start against the Suns. The man’s got to be doing something productive, right?

“We want Kawhi,” Marcus Morris said. “We all love Kawhi. But I’m happy for (George) as a player, to be able to lead a team and show everybody what he’s got.

“There’s always a lot of chatter about how he plays and the things he do, but no one really watches the day-to-day work that he puts in, the kind of teammate he is, the kind of player he is, and how he leading us. We dropping guys and he’s having 41 points, damn near triple-doubles. … You know, you gotta give credit when it’s due, and I’m happy this guy’s stepping up, and I’m happy he had the opportunity to be able to lead the team.”

None of us see the day-to-day work. And maybe the serious injuries he had – the broken leg he suffered in the Team USA camp in 2014, the shoulder surgeries he underwent in the 2019 offseason – taught him how to stay with it when things are hard.

“It’s just been tough,” George said. “It’s been a process. I hear LeBron (James) say he’s not 100 percent and won’t ever be 100 percent again. I thought about it, like, ‘Man, that was stripped from me as well.’ It’s tough. I definitely lost some things. Even with the shoulder surgeries, I lost a little bit. But again, it’s part of this game and you have to take it. You have to roll with it and you have to be able to adapt. You just keep it moving. But it is tough, going through these injuries, rehabbing, finding a way to be yourself again.”

At least one of George’s critics was willing to make amends, a bit, maybe. Later in Monday night’s broadcast, Jackson said George was the best L.A. Clipper ever to wear No. 13.

The other Clipper of any note to wear 13? Mark Jackson, in 1992-93 and ’93-94. And you know what? He’s right.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Alexander: Things don’t go Clippers’ way in prolonged, wacky finish to Game 2

The old canard is that you can just watch the last two minutes of an NBA game and see everything you need to see.

Tuesday night in Phoenix that was almost true, only with a catch.

It was an amazingly eventful final 1:34 in a tremendously intense and entertaining game between the Clippers and Suns, won by Phoenix, 104-103, on Deandre Ayton’s dunk of Jae Crowder’s inbounds lob pass with 0.7 left on the clock. And thanks to the magic of video review, a minute and a half of magnificent craziness took a half an hour or so to complete.

Screwy yet memorable plays were followed by long stretches of everyone standing around, as the referees consulted with the replay center in Secaucus, N.J., five different times to determine if they’d really seen what they thought they had just seen.

“I’ve got to watch the film to make sure I’m not confused by all the events that happened,” Suns coach Monty Williams said.

You’ll probably be seeing this one on NBA TV soon as an instant classic, even if it’s cut down to the final half-hour – er, 1:34. For sure, Suns fans will place it in their mental galleries right alongside Garfield Heard’s buzzer-beater from the top of the key to force triple-overtime in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals. Or the night Steve Nash soldiered on even though he was a bloody mess, finally having to come out because of a cut on the bridge of his nose from an inadvertent head butt during Game 1 of the 2007 conference semifinals against San Antonio.

T-shirts with that image of Nash were spotted in the stands in Phoenix on Tuesday night. Maybe a decade or so from now they’ll be selling T-shirts of Devin Booker, blood dripping from a cut at the bridge of his nose following a run-in with Patrick Beverley on Tuesday night.

The Clippers’ problem? Those other two memorable moments wound up as Phoenix losses. No such luck this time.

How will Clippers fans remember it? It will depend on where this series goes from here. They are again in an 0-2 hole – “We’ve been in this position before, even though we hate it,” Coach Ty Lue said – and while they’ve dug their way out of the first two such predicaments this postseason, the degree of difficulty seems far stiffer now.

The heroes and villains are already lined up, depending on where your loyalties lie. Beverley, with his identity as a fierce competitor willing to assume any challenge and do whatever it takes, took on the responsibility of guarding Booker for most of Game 2. Among other things, Booker was 5 for 16 from the field and had seven turnovers – including one very big one at the end, caused by Beverley and upheld after another excruciating wait for the officials to hash it out with Secaucus.

And shall we say their duel turned out to be a nose for a nose? Booker, who had to go back to the locker room to get stitched up after he and Beverley bumped heads late in the third quarter, was called for an offensive foul with 1:06 left in the game when his forearm connected with Beverley’s nose and drew blood. The whistle blew after Beverley had fallen to the floor and while Booker was driving to the basket, and the foul wasn’t called until after the refs had gone to the monitor.

“I’ve never seen it,” Booker said. “I tried to get an explanation. I don’t know.”

Booker had the last laugh. It was his screen on Ivica Zubac on the deciding play that enabled Ayton to get to the rim unimpeded.

If this series is developing a personality, the blood might be as good a place to start as any. Both teams ramped up the physicality in Game 2, Beverley and later Rajon Rondo hounding Booker, Crowder and Co. doing the same to George.

Then again, with Kawhi Leonard still out and no indication that he’ll be available at all during this series, much of what the Clippers do and much of how they are perceived will revolve around George. And any reputation salvaging he did during the Utah series took a big hit Tuesday when he stepped to the foul line with 8.2 seconds left and his team ahead by a point.

Make one free throw, and the Suns need a 3-pointer to beat you and Ayton’s basket merely ties it. Make them both, and they can only force overtime with a 3-pointer. George, a career 85 percent free-throw shooter, made neither. The first lipped in and came back out. The second bounced long to Mikal Bridges, the Suns had life and Ayton ultimately cashed it in, after a timeout, a missed shot on a first inbound play, and a second inbound pass with 0.9 seconds remaining.

You didn’t possibly think there would be a straight line between missed free throws and the game-winning basket, did you?

“I’m not going to put too much on that,” George said. “Obviously it was an opportunity that was missed. Pat made an unbelievable play that put me in position to extend the lead. I’m always confident at the free-throw line. I’ve always been very successful in clutch moments at the free-throw line.

“Tonight I was just unsuccessful extending the lead. So I’m not going to put too much on that. Fact of the matter is, we still were in position to win a ballgame late in the game.”

It’s good that the Clippers are returning to Staples Center. If they take care of business well enough to return to Phoenix for Game 5, I’m sure Suns fans will be ready with their “Playoff P.” chants to go with the traditional “Beat L.A.” (If you hear the latter on the road, does that constitute a rite of passage as an L.A. team?)

The positive? The Clippers were in both of these games to the end, could have won Game 1 and probably should have won Game 2. That was small consolation.

“I don’t think you have to start two games in the hole,” Beverley said. “I don’t think that’s our plan … I’ve played a lot of games in this league. This one’s hard. This one goes up there. This is a hard game to kind of swallow because you look at this game, I mean, we got this game won, you know.

“But we’ve been in the trenches before. We respond well in the trenches. We’ll respond well. We always do.”

This series is just getting good. But you might want to budget plenty of time for it.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Whicker: To make a memory, Clippers dissolve a 2015 nightmare

What goes around comes around, even if it takes a six-year orbit, even if most of us thought there would be an NFL team and a four-year college and a Shake Shack on Mars before we would see the Clippers do what they did Friday night.

They did not come off the floor to catch and stuff and mount the Utah Jazz in Game 6. They came from under the floor and through six feet of dirt.

They trailed by 25 points in the third quarter. They won the second half, 81-48, got 39 points from a second-round draft choice, and got a 131-119 win that puts them into the Western Conference finals for the very first time. The fact that they’ll play Game 1 on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. PT in Phoenix might seem a little extreme, but maybe it’s best not to interrupt the Clippers’ roll.

“That was basketball right there,” forward Nicolas Batum said later, pointing back toward the direction of a court that had tilted against them so maliciously, so many times before. “‘A big crowd, and we missed them, too. But that was basketball.”

And even though nearly every molecule of this franchise is different from 2015, no Clippers fan could fail to connect the dots.

For once the base can look back to Game 6 of that conference semifinal series and exhale. The Clippers spent most of that night on the edge of perfection. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were 20 for 27 from the field at one point. They led the Houston Rockets by 19 points with 2:35 left in the third quarter.

Then the cliff crumbled, and Houston beat the Clippers from that point, 49-18, including 40-15 in the fourth quarter. For a full house at Staples Center, it was like watching an iceberg collapse, frame-by-frame. The Rockets won, 119-107, and finished the job in Game 7 in Texas.

There was another connective aspect. Just as these Clippers won Game 5 in Utah and Game 6 at Staples without Kawhi Leonard, Houston overtook those Clippers with James Harden on the bench, a decision by Coach Kevin McHale, throughout that fourth quarter.

There is always a time when a franchise, or an athlete, has to quit denying its history and strike a blow for liberty. Sometimes, it’s Mookie Betts making a catch beyond the general imagination, or Scott Spiezio backspinning a three-run home run with a 5-0 deficit and helping turn elimination into survival, or Teemu Selanne floating a puck into a Detroit net in Game 5 overtime.

The Clippers have had moments like that in both series they’ve won. They’ve left Dallas’ Luka Doncic behind. They’ve squeezed past Utah’s Donovan Mitchell. They’ve done it with superior numbers and with a refusal to absorb the defeatism that seems to come with the uniform.

“I’ve been here for a while, I’ve been through it, I’ve seen friends get traded,” said guard Patrick Beverley, who hit two enormous 3-pointers from the corner late in the fourth quarter when the Jazz still had a pulse. “We’ve been working to become that grit-and-grind team.”

And they did it Friday night after Utah’s Jordan Clarkson had torched them with 22 points in the second quarter, in a half that ranged from shock to panic.

“We had been taking a lot of bad shots,” Coach Tyronn Lue said. “We talked about getting into the paint, and if we did that, then (Utah center) Rudy Gobert would have to help and our guys could get open looks. We said to just keep passing it around, don’t take it personal.”

It helped that Mitchell’s chronic ankle issue was beginning to rebel, as it had near the end of Game 5 in Utah. But the Clippers went to a zone to break up Utah’s rhythm, and Clarkson, like a thunderstorm, sort of moved out of the area. He was scoreless after halftime.

A slide rule isn’t necessary to conclude that an 81-point half is a fairly epicurean pace. But here, Terance Mann shot 10 for 13 in that second half and scored 25 points after he had scored 12 in the first quarter. Mann, who had totaled 25 points through the first five games, hit 3-pointers, rummaged for loose balls and scored inside on Gobert. He broke up Utah passes, and he matched Mitchell’s 39 points for the game.

When it was over, Batum was bellowing, “M-V-P,” and Mann was momentarily stumped when it came time to remember his totals.

“Come on,” Paul George, his All-Star teammate, teased him. “You know how many you had.”

“Well, I looked up once and I had 34,” Mann said. “That’s the last thing I remember.”

But Reggie Jackson continues to be the Clippers’ one-stop-shopping solution. He was 5 for 5 in the fourth quarter with five assists, and scored 27 points overall, after his own scoreless first quarter. Up by three, he bounced a perfect pass to Mann for a layup and a 111-106 lead.  He drove and scored on Gobert for a six-point lead. He drove again and lofted the ball above the square and watched it drop in for a 10-point lead. Every time he gained the lane, the Clippers got an unaccompanied shot and, often enough, drilled it.

“Pat Bev said it at halftime,” Jackson said. “He said not to worry about the offense. We were making mistakes in our defensive schemes, we weren’t making them feel us. We had to get some turnovers, take it to offense, make them lose some of our guys, and try to attack Rudy instead of him attacking us.

“I’ve seen it all year. Guys coming in to work hard, countless hours. Guys going through frustrations but for the right reasons, because they want to be a great team. It’s a band of brothers right now. We’ve believed when nobody else does.”

Believing requires seeing. As for 9:45 p.m. PDT on Friday night, there was indisputable video evidence of the Same New Clippers.

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Whicker: Terance Mann reaches peak, brings Clippers close to another

It takes about 15 minutes, depending on the line, to ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Terance Mann needed less than a second to scale its NBA equivalent. He didn’t do it for the view.

He did it at the end of a disjoined Clippers possession late in Wednesday’s fourth quarter, in which the shot clock narrowed the viable options to one. He had to climb Rudy Gobert, the Frenchman known as the Stifle Tower.

Nothing much was riding on this. The Western Conference semifinals were tied 2-2, and Kawhi Leonard and his sprained knee were back in L.A. The Clippers were leading Utah by three points with 2:38 left.

Mann, at 6-foot-5, drove on the 7-1 Gobert as blithely as Evel Knievel. Whatever you do, don’t look down.

And he didn’t. Mann kept rising up the sheer face of Gobert and when he reached the bucket, he stuffed the basketball in it. Gobert fouled him. Mann hit the free throw and the Clippers led by seven and went on to win, 119-111, one of the better rallies ’round the flag in their playoff history. They lead, 3-2, with two shots to reach the first Western Conference finals in their history, which began in Buffalo 50 seasons ago, with 22 wins and Bob Kauffman in the post.

Mann’s Free Solo act will be the Kodak moment of this win, even though Paul George put together an unshakeable, 37-point, 16-rebound performance, even though Reggie Jackson propped up the Clippers in the fourth quarter when the Jazz and their crowd were threatening, even though Leonard, whose huge hands smooth out all the fourth-quarter wrinkles, wasn’t there.

“I wasn’t hitting my threes,” Mann said. “I was tired of settling. I got him on my hip. You can’t just go up there and try to lay it up on him. I just tried to do what I could.”

The Clippers now have taken two consecutive 0-2 deficits and made them 3-2 leads, even though top-seeded Utah is a completely different challenge than Dallas. Gobert is a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Somehow the Clippers have escaped his defensive reach, but not through avoidance. They scored 34 points in the paint Wednesday night and Gobert did not block a shot.  He has only seven in the series.

“We want to attack him, but we also want to get him away from the rim early and string him out,” Jackson said. “And then we have to finish at the rim or kick out. He controls it, he has those awards for a reason.

“For Terance, he’s always energized, ready for any assignment. It was just an example of not wanting to let off the gas just because we’re a man down. We’ve been a man down from time to time all season.”

There are still dangers for the Clippers, who must win Friday at Staples Center to avoid a Game 7 in Salt Lake City. But even when they were flailing around in Games 1 and 2 and living at the end of Donovan Mitchell’s string, they kept playing through the noise, kept taking it deep into the fourth quarter, kept making Utah serve it out.

This is the complete opposite of the easily discouraged Clippers of last year, but maybe that’s why they call it last year.

“We were down five at halftime and I felt great,” Coach Tyronn Lue said, noting that the Jazz had dropped 17 3-point drones on the Clippers in the first half and still only led by five points.

“We just had to weather it,” George said. “We just stuck with it.”

So, to its regret, did Utah. As Charles Barkley intones almost weekly, you can live or die by the 3-pointer. Rarely has life seemed richer or death seemed more flammable. The Jazz went 0 for 10 from long range in the third quarter and 3 for 24 in the second half, and some of Mitchell’s heaves in the second half looked like Florida State field-goal tries against Miami.

Bojan Bogdanovic hit his first six 3-point shots, in the first quarter. He missed eight of his next 11. Mitchell, who didn’t join the artillery range in the first half, went 4 for 14 from distance. Sometimes there’s fool’s gold in those hills.

“I think 30 of their 37 shots in the first half were threes,” George said, correctly. Add 13 turnovers and eight missed free throws, and the Jazz won’t need forensic help to analyze this one.

For years the NBA playoffs have been mired in predictability. But in two nights, the Brooklyn Nets came from 17 down, without Kyrie Irving, to beat Milwaukee in Game 5, Atlanta erased a 26-point deficit to win a Game 5 at Philadelphia, and now this.

“We even had T-Mann playing the five,” Lue said, laughing, and indeed it looked like play. Just for a moment, the Stifle Tower became the Clippers’ Magic Mountain.

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Alexander: Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard rises to occasion to pull even with Jazz

Three time zones away, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid was discussing his team’s tough night against the Atlanta Hawks with reporters on Zoom when he happened to look up at a monitor and see Kawhi Leonard posterizing Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors at Staples Center.

“Oh, my God,” he said. “You see that dunk? You see that Kawhi dunk? Man. Wow!”

Rough night, but at least one thing kept Joel’s spirits up tonight 😅 pic.twitter.com/Zmeaq3Cep6

— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) June 15, 2021

I’m not even sure that “posterizing,” the common term for a dunk that immortalizes the defender for all the wrong reasons, does it justice. This was a true hammer dunk, a statement of aggression and determination and … well, would ownership be an adequate description?

#Dunk of the #playoffs? #KawhiLeonard UP HIGH AND DOWN HARD!#Kawhi #Leonard #TheKlaw #LosAngelesClippers #LosAngeles #Clippers #ClippersNation #ClippersTwitter #NBAtwitter #NBAtwitterLive #playoffs2021 #NBAplayoffs #NBAplayoffs2021 #NBAdunk #Basketball #SlamDunk #NBAslamDunk pic.twitter.com/kwUFPEZwcQ

🏀 MY LIFE WITH NBA 🏀 (GUTEK Z POLIGONU) (@Gutek_z_poligon) June 15, 2021

Leonard had multiple opportunities to light up social media Monday night, and to grab the attention of his peers, on an evening when the Clippers shook off their pattern of slow starts, rolling up a 29-point lead late in the first half and tying their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series with the Jazz with a 118-104 Game 4 win.

There was also this blocked shot, in the third quarter, when he went up to swat away Bojan Bogdanovic’s try at the rim. This might have been a response to those who questioned his presence on the NBA’s All-Defensive second team that was announced earlier in the day, his seventh such honor and third in a row.

O cara domina dunk, o cara domina toco! Kawhi Leonard 💥 https://t.co/IyB0adzcCy

— lucasebumps (@tonightastark) June 15, 2021

And, Kawhi being Kawhi, he topped it off in his usual succinct fashion after an injury scare in the fourth quarter. Leonard was driving toward the basket when he and Bogdanovic bumped and he landed awkwardly and appeared to hurt his right knee. He limped around a bit, stayed in the game but came out for good with 4½ minutes left, and the Clippers leading by 16 but the Jazz making a late run.

So, he was asked by TNT’s Rebecca Haarlow during the on-court postgame interview, would this be an issue going forward?

“Nah,” he said. “I’ll be good.”

When he was asked to elaborate during the postgame Zoom … well, you can imagine where that went.

“Yeah, next question,” he said.

Leonard, Paul George and Marcus Morris in the first half (22 of his 24 points, including 5 for 5 from 3-point range) carried much of the load for a team that just keeps plugging away, undaunted by 0-2 series deficits.

The Clippers have had problems at the beginning of games, problems at the beginning of second halves, problems with the 3-point shooting that was their strength all through the regular season. They surmounted two of those issues Monday night, though the third quarter is still an issue; they led Utah 51-22 with 5:21 left in the first half, before giving up a 12-4 run, and had a 24-point halftime lead sliced to 14 in the first 3:25 of the third quarter.

Those starts of games were an uncomfortable pattern. The Clippers have played 11 games this postseason and not only have they not scored the first basket in any of them but they haven’t won the opening tip in any. More to the point, they faced deficits of 9-2, 11-0, 7-0 and 9-3 against Dallas, and 10-2, 10-2 and 8-0 in the first three games against Utah. In flipping the script Monday night they led 10-2 after the first 2:15 and 40-17 four minutes into the second quarter, and it’s safe to say that cushion turned out to be important.

“You don’t want to be the counterpuncher, you want to be the aggressor,” Coach Ty Lue said before Game 4.

Maybe the Clippers’ video staff should put that Leonard dunk on a constant loop to remind their players that, yes, aggressiveness matters a lot at this time of year.

“They put a center on him a couple of times in the middle of the zone,” Lue said afterward. “I told him to attack, told him to be aggressive, and he got kinda mad. And then the next play he came down the lane and dunked over Favors.

“Just have an attack mentality. That’s what we got to do. Can’t let a team off the hook. We got to make these guys defend us. We know how we want to play and what we want to do.”

There is a reason why Leonard has two NBA championship rings, and why he was the Finals MVP with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014 and the Toronto Raptors in 2019. It’s the same reason why Steve Ballmer’s organization went to the mat to sign him two summers ago.

“You see him being more aggressive, and you know what time it is,” George said. “It’s written all over him in terms of, it’s ‘go time.’ It’s playoff basketball and, you know, it’s winning time. So you see it all around him, his approach, his body language.”

It is no-nonsense. The guy who lit up social media pays no attention to the commotion, though he did make a bit of an exception here.

“Zu (teammate Ivica Zubac) showed me the clip of Embiid talking, and that’s the only thing I got from it,” Leonard said.

“I know it’s a big play, but I’ve got to have that next play mentality because right after that, I think Joe Ingles came down and hit a three pretty wide open in the corner. We’ve still got room for improvement.”

So the drama continues Wednesday night in Salt Lake City. And amid the overheated analysis in which we all engage, here’s a reminder to keep it simple.

“It’s a competition,” Leonard said. “Somebody got to win the game, and we got to go out with a mindset trying to win.”

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Alexander: Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard rises to occasion to even series with Jazz

Three time zones away, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid was discussing his team’s tough night against the Atlanta Hawks with reporters on Zoom when he happened to look up at a monitor and see Kawhi Leonard posterizing Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors at Staples Center.

“Oh, my God,” he said. “You see that dunk? You see that Kawhi dunk? Man. Wow!”

Rough night, but at least one thing kept Joel’s spirits up tonight 😅 pic.twitter.com/Zmeaq3Cep6

— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) June 15, 2021

I’m not even sure that “posterizing,” the common term for a dunk that immortalizes the defender for all the wrong reasons, does it justice. This was a true hammer dunk, a statement of aggression and determination and … well, would ownership be an adequate description?

#Dunk of the #playoffs? #KawhiLeonard UP HIGH AND DOWN HARD!#Kawhi #Leonard #TheKlaw #LosAngelesClippers #LosAngeles #Clippers #ClippersNation #ClippersTwitter #NBAtwitter #NBAtwitterLive #playoffs2021 #NBAplayoffs #NBAplayoffs2021 #NBAdunk #Basketball #SlamDunk #NBAslamDunk pic.twitter.com/kwUFPEZwcQ

🏀 MY LIFE WITH NBA 🏀 (GUTEK Z POLIGONU) (@Gutek_z_poligon) June 15, 2021

Leonard had multiple opportunities to light up social media Monday night, and to grab the attention of his peers, on an evening when the Clippers shook off their pattern of slow starts, rolling up a 29-point lead late in the first half and tying their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series with the Jazz with a 118-104 Game 4 win.

There was also this blocked shot, in the third quarter, when he went up to swat away Bojan Bogdanovic’s try at the rim. This might have been a response to those who questioned his presence on the NBA’s All-Defensive second team that was announced earlier in the day, his seventh such honor and third in a row.

O cara domina dunk, o cara domina toco! Kawhi Leonard 💥 https://t.co/IyB0adzcCy

— lucasebumps (@tonightastark) June 15, 2021

And, Kawhi being Kawhi, he topped it off in his usual succinct fashion after an injury scare in the fourth quarter. Leonard was driving toward the basket when he and Bogdanovic bumped and he landed awkwardly and appeared to hurt his right knee. He limped around a bit, stayed in the game but came out for good with 4½ minutes left, and the Clippers leading by 16 but the Jazz making a late run.

So, he was asked by TNT’s Rebecca Haarlow during the on-court postgame interview, would this be an issue going forward?

“Nah,” he said. “I’ll be good.”

When he was asked to elaborate during the postgame Zoom … well, you can imagine where that went.

“Yeah, next question,” he said.

Leonard, Paul George and Marcus Morris in the first half (22 of his 24 points, including 5 for 5 from 3-point range) carried much of the load for a team that just keeps plugging away, undaunted by 0-2 series deficits.

The Clippers have had problems at the beginning of games, problems at the beginning of second halves, problems with the 3-point shooting that was their strength all through the regular season. They surmounted two of those issues Monday night, though the third quarter is still an issue; they led Utah 51-22 with 5:21 left in the first half, before giving up a 12-4 run, and had a 24-point halftime lead sliced to 14 in the first 3:25 of the third quarter.

Those starts of games were an uncomfortable pattern. The Clippers have played 11 games this postseason and not only have they not scored the first basket in any of them but they haven’t won the opening tip in any. More to the point, they faced deficits of 9-2, 11-0, 7-0 and 9-3 against Dallas, and 10-2, 10-2 and 8-0 in the first three games against Utah. In flipping the script Monday night they led 10-2 after the first 2:15 and 40-17 four minutes into the second quarter, and it’s safe to say that cushion turned out to be important.

“You don’t want to be the counterpuncher, you want to be the aggressor,” Coach Ty Lue said before Game 4.

Maybe the Clippers’ video staff should put that Leonard dunk on a constant loop to remind their players that, yes, aggressiveness matters a lot at this time of year.

“They put a center on him a couple of times in the middle of the zone,” Lue said afterward. “I told him to attack, told him to be aggressive, and he got kinda mad. And then the next play he came down the lane and dunked over Favors.

“Just have an attack mentality. That’s what we got to do. Can’t let a team off the hook. We got to make these guys defend us. We know how we want to play and what we want to do.”

There is a reason why Leonard has two NBA championship rings, and why he was the Finals MVP with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014 and the Toronto Raptors in 2019. It’s the same reason why Steve Ballmer’s organization went to the mat to sign him two summers ago.

“You see him being more aggressive, and you know what time it is,” George said. “It’s written all over him in terms of, it’s ‘go time.’ It’s playoff basketball and, you know, it’s winning time. So you see it all around him, his approach, his body language.”

It is no-nonsense. The guy who lit up social media pays no attention to the commotion, though he did make a bit of an exception here.

“Zu (teammate Ivica Zubac) showed me the clip of Embiid talking, and that’s the only thing I got from it,” Leonard said.

“I know it’s a big play, but I’ve got to have that next play mentality because right after that, I think Joe Ingles came down and hit a three pretty wide open in the corner. We’ve still got room for improvement.”

So the drama continues Wednesday night in Salt Lake City. And amid the overheated analysis in which we all engage, here’s a reminder to keep it simple.

“It’s a competition,” Leonard said. “Somebody got to win the game, and we got to go out with a mindset trying to win.”

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Alexander: Clippers’ task is not impossible, but it’s not easy

There are parallels, and there’s one important difference.

The Clippers are down 2-0 in a series, again. They’re playing a team with a dynamic player who demands special attention, again.

This time they’re coming home after losing two on the road, but those losses were to the team with the NBA’s best regular-season record. They do have a one-game winning streak at Staples Center, and the odds are it’s going to sound like a library compared to what they’ve faced in Salt Lake City this week, which might or might not be helpful.

So let’s see what happens as this Western Conference semifinal series against the Utah Jazz continues.

Some of the flaws were easy to spot Thursday night, in a 117-111 decision that gave the top-seeded Jazz the 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Patrick Beverley, DeMarcus Cousins … just about everybody but Steve Ballmer and Chuck the Condor (who didn’t make the trip) had a hand in trying to guard Utah star Donovan Mitchell in the first half, when he had 27 of his 37 points.

The Clippers, who started a small lineup in Game 1, started Ivica Zubac on Thursday night and fell behind 10-2 in less than two minutes, eight of those points by Mitchell. They trailed by 21 early in the third quarter. But Tyronn Lue’s tinkering also produced a zone defense that befuddled Utah for a while in the second half, leading to a 46-23 run over a 14-1/2 minute span and a 101-99 lead on a Reggie Jackson 3-pointer with 6:37 left.

This might be the Clippers’ biggest problem: That lead lasted all of 11 seconds. Mitchell might not necessarily have been The Man in the fourth quarter, but Rudy Gobert (13 points and 20 rebounds) made key plays and Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles supplied the daggers down the stretch with key 3-pointers.

Twice in two games, the Clippers’ defense has put the clamps on Utah for long stretches. Both times the Jazz recovered. Add the fact that Utah point guard Mike Conley has yet to play in this series because of what was described as a “mild” hamstring strain suffered in the Memphis series, placing an additional burden on Mitchell and Ingles, and you start to wonder if maybe the Clippers have already blown their best opportunity to put this series in a hammerlock.

“We got stagnant. They slowed us up. And credit to Ty Lue and the staff for doing that,” Mitchell said afterward. “But we haven’t played against zone in a long time, (to) find ways to get into the paint and do what we have been doing. And then on top of that, we wasn’t getting any stops. … The looks they were getting and the way they were getting their buckets, I feel like we can control that a little better than we did, in that third quarter especially.”

Bogdanovic also supplied some stout defense on Leonard, who finished with a quiet 21 points and just two in the fourth quarter. There are going to be plenty of adjustments and strategic quirks by both teams throughout the series, but the deciding factor probably will be whether the stars play like stars.

“As good as they are playing, as good as this matchup is, as tough as this matchup is, we still feel like there’s moments throughout this game, this series, that we’re making plays that are self-inflicted,” George said. “Again, it’s a lot of uphill, but we’re optimistic that we can get this under control.”

George has obviously become the favorite target of Utah’s fans, who booed him vigorously during introductions and serenaded him with chants of “Pandemic P” and “Over-rated” throughout the evening. At one point he was 4 for 13 from the field but finished 8 for 18 from the field and 9 for 9 from the foul line for 27 points, second on the Clippers to Jackson’s 29 on 4-for-8 3-point shooting.

On the ESPN broadcast Thursday night, analyst Doris Burke made a reference to the Clippers’ “casualness” after back-to-back turnovers by Jackson and George on sloppy passes. That might be the attribute that drives those who watch them play the most crazy. It’s not that they’re not trying, because they obviously are. But sometimes they have that too cool for school look to them, and George tends to be the most noticeable in that regard.

Maybe they need more Patrick Beverley more frequently. Maybe they need more Rajon Rondo, who inexplicably was a DNP-Coach’s decision on Thursday night, as Lue trimmed his rotation to nine (aside from 1:07 for Terance Mann in the fourth quarter).

Or maybe this series is just beginning to get good and we don’t realize it yet. Keep in mind that the Clippers aren’t the only club whose playoff experience in the bubble last year ended with a 3-1 blown lead against Denver. Utah had it happen in the previous round.

But the Jazz didn’t face championship expectations then the way the Clippers did, and while they might have had to answer for their blown lead, those questions didn’t extend much beyond the borders of Salt Lake City. There are expectations now, after the Jazz finished the compacted 72-game regular season with the game’s best record and celebrated the awards for Defensive Player of the Year (Gobert for the third time) and Sixth Man of the Year (former Laker Jordan Clarkson).

“There’s going to be adversity,” Mitchell said. “We’re not always going to blow them out, blow teams out. It’s the playoffs … for us, it’s like, ‘Okay, they made a run, but how do we counter that?’

“I think we understand how to handle these things, and I think that was what you saw (Thursday) night. And I think definitely the experience level in the bubble helped. We understood, ‘Okay, this is what we’re doing,’ having flashbacks of certain instances, and we kind of relate and having the same core group, we know exactly how these things work.”

History can be a very good teacher. We’ll soon see how much and how well the Clippers have learned.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Alexander: Could Lakers have repeated under normal circumstances?

Championship DNA, for whatever it’s worth, doesn’t guarantee good health.

The Lakers might have been able to boast the former, the outgrowth of last season’s championship run in the bubble. But the latter failed them throughout this mad scramble of a shortened, compressed NBA season. And yes, when it comes to writing the story of the Lakers’ 2020-21 season, and the bid to repeat that fell short, there is blame to be laid and it’s not all internal.

That story ended Thursday night with a 113-100 elimination game loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the first round, and it figured that the most important game of the season revolved around the injury report. Even then, good news turned out to be not so good after all.

After a couple of days of uncertainty, the Lakers received a blast of hope when Anthony Davis was deemed available to play before the game … only to have it doused when the All-Star big man limped off for good less than 5½ minutes into the game, his strained left groin making it impossible to continue after he’d visibly labored whenever he tried to run or jump.

The moment of truth came when Davis pursued the Suns’ Devin Booker on a drive to the basket, jumped … and came down awkwardly and agonizingly. Davis bent over in obvious pain, then limped to the sideline and plopped to the floor, head bowed in disappointment. Moments later he went to the locker room for treatment, and by halftime, the obvious had become official: He would not be returning.

Davis, of course, had provided the first clue that this Lakers season was going to be a grind when he limped off the court on Valentine’s Day night in Denver with the calf strain felt throughout Southern California. Davis missed 30 consecutive games with that injury and 36 all told in the regular season, hyperextended his left knee in Game 3 of the Suns series, then suffered the Grade 1 strain of his left groin in Game 4 on Sunday while trying to play through the knee issue. And yes, the knee injury led to the groin injury.

That in itself was a microcosm of what turned out to be a brutal end of the season, with Davis and LeBron James missing extensive time and a team that started out 21-6 and was seemingly in a great position to repeat suddenly having to battle for its playoff life.

It’s probably no coincidence that the Lakers and Miami, the last teams standing in the Orlando bubble last October, were also among the first ones gone this spring. With a short offseason followed by a 72-game schedule crammed into 146 days, with few off days, little time for real practices and an array of continuing COVID-19 protocols and restrictions … well, what did you expect?

“From the moment we entered the bubble to now, today, it’s been draining,” said James, a 36-year-old four-time league MVP. “Mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally draining.”

The short offseason disrupted players’ routines, Davis noted, and “all around the league, guys didn’t handle that very well. … You usually take about a month or so off and you still have six weeks weight room training, and then you have another month, month and a half for on-court (work). We didn’t get that.”

Lakers coach Frank Vogel acknowledged that “none of our guys were prepared for training camp, and we tried to grind through it and get our legs under us,” another reminder that there’s a good reason why, under normal circumstances, players are expected to be in condition when camp begins.

The first-round series with the Suns finished with the No. 2 seed doing what it should do to a No. 7 seed. At 51-21 in the regular season, Phoenix was only one game behind Utah for the league’s best record, and the Suns might be capable of going the distance assuming future Hall of Famer Chris Paul gets his health back.

But Vogel had every right to wonder what if.

“This is a matchup, if we’re whole, that should probably take place in the conference finals,” he said. “But obviously the regular season was what it was with the injuries, and we slipped. I would like to see what our group could have done against this team if we were at full strength. But we weren’t. That’s sports. You gotta do the best you can and make the best of it.”

Not even James, with his personal streak of winning elimination games and his record of never having been knocked out in the first round in 14 previous tries, could save the day here. Then again, what was once a 29-point Phoenix lead in the first half was whittled to 10 late in the third quarter, thanks to a rally by a small lineup featuring LeBron at center.

“I was talking to Wes (Wesley Matthews) in the locker room just a few minutes ago, and I said the one thing that bothers me more than anything was we never really got an opportunity to see our team at full strength, either because of injury, or COVID, or something going on with our ballclub this year,” James said. “We could never fully get into a rhythm and never really kind of see the full potential of what we were capable of.”

That said, the Lakers’ early exit also means a full summer of rest, recovery and preparation. James seemed to indicate he’d skip the Olympics (while throwing in a sly plug for the “Space Jam” sequel coming out this summer).

Point guard Dennis Schröder put it another way, more colorfully than can be fully quoted in this publication, but the gist of it was: “You’ve got to get through the (garbage) to get to the good (stuff).”

If that’s true, wait until next year.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Lakers’ change at center does little to help in season-ending loss to Suns

LOS ANGELES — The old adage in football is if you have two starting quarterbacks, you really have none. The same could be said for the Lakers’ starting center situation in their first-round playoff exit to the Phoenix Suns.

Prior to Thursday night’s Game 6, Coach Frank Vogel decided to make a change to his starting lineup, inserting veteran Marc Gasol and moving Andre Drummond to the bench in an effort to shake things up after a disastrous Game 5 loss two nights earlier in Phoenix. But it made little difference in a 113-100 season-ending defeat for the Lakers.

Gasol shared the team lead with seven assists, but he did not score and had just three rebounds in 18 minutes. Drummond never saw the court, and when the Lakers made their push to try to stave off elimination, LeBron James was the team’s de facto center.

Game 6 was Gasol’s first start since April 15 and his fifth since the Lakers signed Drummond on March 28 after the Cleveland Cavaliers bought him out of his contract. Gasol signed with the Lakers during the offseason with the idea of being the team’s starting center, but he was relegated to a reserve role through the stretch run of the season. He did not play at Vogel’s discretion nine times in that span, including Game 1 of the series against Phoenix.

But after starting the second half of Game 5 in place of Drummond, Gasol was given his chance from the opening tip in the finale. He had a quiet first quarter, with one rebound and one assist in seven minutes.

When Gasol went to the bench in the first quarter, it wasn’t Drummond who took his spot on the court. Instead, Vogel opted for the more athletic Montrezl Harrell, who had one put-back dunk but otherwise didn’t contribute much in his eight minutes on the court.

Drummond was the lone Laker active for the game to not play on Thursday. On Wednesday, he sent out a tweet foreshadowing his move to the bench, saying “Lol. Remember kids, ‘Control what you can control and let the rest take care of itself.’”

During Game 6, Drummond mostly stood on the sidelines, his arms behind his back as he talked with teammates. After the halftime buzzer, he walked on the court to give Gasol a high-five before the two headed to the locker room.

Gasol started the second half with two quick assists, finding Wes Mathews cutting to the basket for a layup and then lobbing a pass to James for another. But he soon picked up his fourth foul, and Vogel opted to go small, not reinserting Gasol until there were just 30.6 seconds left in the game.

With All-Star forward Anthony Davis out after aggravating his injured left groin, James moved to center while Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma lined up in the post beside him.

“We just had to find a way to shut (Devin) Booker’s water off,” Vogel said of the small lineup. “We were able to generate some defensive stops, get us out on the break. And then there’s offensive spacing benefit to that lineup as well.”

The unit worked to a point, with the Lakers whittling down what had been a 29-point margin to 10. But it wasn’t enough to dig the team all the way out of the early hole.

How the Lakers address the center situation will be one of the big questions facing the team entering the offseason. Gasol has one season left on his contract. Harrell has a player option for 2021-22, while Drummond is set to be a free agent.

“We can switch it up,” Davis said when asked what his preferred frontcourt teammate looks like. “We had two bigs last year, JaVale (McGee) and Dwight (Howard). This year we had a stretch big and a big who plays in the paint. I can play either/or. I think my ideal big is whatever works, whatever fits our team. That’s ideal for me.”

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