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With Clippers’ season on the line, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George became the stars LA needed

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With Clippers' season on the line, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George became the stars LA needed

The Clippers could have easily folded. With less than five minutes to go in the first quarter of Friday night’s Game 3 against the Mavericks, Los Angeles was staring at a 19-point deficit. Luka Doncic was cooking. The American Airlines Center crowd was rocking. The Clippers were, well, “Clipping” as only they could, to the delight of critics everywhere.

But Clippers coach Tyronn Lue sent a simple message to his team when the scoreboard read 30-11: “Stay the course.” It’s easier to do that when you’ve got two of the best players in the NBA steering the ship.

MORE: Chris Paul is painfully aware of playoff history with Scott Foster

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George led the way in the Clippers’ 118-108 comeback win, which prevented the Mavericks from grabbing an insurmountable 3-0 series lead. The dynamic duo was spectacular in Game 3, combining for 65 points on 68.6 percent shooting, the highest combined field goal percentage for Leonard and George in any game as teammates.

Game 3 PTS FG-FGA 3PT-3PTA FT-FTA AST REB TO
Kawhi Leonard 36 13-17 3-5 7-7 3 8 3
Paul George 29 11-18 2-6 5-5 4 7 1

“PG and Kawhi were fantastic,” Lue said during his postgame media availability. “I thought PG really carried us in that first half, and then Kawhi in the second half really took over the game. That’s what we need from those two guys. . . . It was a total team effort, but like I said, Kawhi and PG really put us on their shoulders.”

Leonard and George didn’t perform poorly in Games 1 and 2, but they were largely overshadowed by the brilliance of Doncic. The Dallas star totaled 44 points, nine assists and nine rebounds in Game 3, but this time it was Leonard and George who dictated the action.

The Clippers forwards scored at every level — finding their way to the basket, pulling up from the midrange and sinking their attempts from beyond the arc. Yet it never felt like either player monopolized the offense. Everything came within the natural flow of the game.

They didn’t do it alone, of course. Los Angeles got timely contributions from Marcus Morris (15 points), Reggie Jackson (16 points) and Rajon Rondo (six points, eight assists, team-high plus-22). While Lue admitted there were some game-plan mistakes that led to easy looks for the Mavs, the defense was much improved and tightened up down the stretch.

But as much as role players can make an impact on the postseason stage, Game 3 was about the biggest names rising to the occasion. 

“We got down 0-2, and [Leonard and George] weren’t discouraged,” Lue said. “Their conversation to the players, the things we have to do to get better and be better, they led that. And you came out and see them play tonight. It was just great to see.”

Now the challenge for Leonard, George and the Clippers is to continue down that course. They are still down 2-1, and with Doncic standing in their way, there is plenty of work left to do.

“We haven’t showed anything,” George said. “We’re not the favorites. We’re not the defending champs. We haven’t showed anything. We’ve got to continue to keep doing it. We’ve got to win this series. But it’s one game at a time. We’ve got to win Game 4 and send it back to LA, take home-court advantage. But off one win we haven’t showed anything.”

Sure, it’s just one win, but the Clippers did show something: When Leonard and George play at the peak of their powers, they won’t be an easy out for the Mavericks — or anyone else. 

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Chris Paul, NBA Twitter react to Deandre Ayton’s game-winning dunk in Suns vs. Clippers

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Chris Paul, NBA Twitter react to Deandre Ayton's game-winning dunk in Suns vs. Clippers

Deandre Ayton was the hero for the Suns in their Game 2 win over the Clippers.

With less than a second left on the clock, the Suns were down one point and had just 0.9 seconds to get a shot off. Jae Crowder inbounded the ball on the baseline under the Suns’ basket and found Ayton cutting to the hoop.

Ayton threw it down. The play took just 0.2 seconds off the clock and sealed the 104-103 win for the Suns.

Here’s a look at the amazing finish.

Ayton and Crowder deserve a bulk of the credit, but Devin Booker had an impact on the finish as well. His physical screen on Ivica Zubac — who is seven inches taller and 35 pounds heavier than Booker — gave Ayton just enough space to get open off the cut and throw down the dunk.

And Booker put his body on the line despite playing with a bloodied nose that required stitches after an inadvertent hit from Patrick Beverley earlier in the game.

The Suns’ finish thrilled Phoenix fans as well as the team’s star point guard Chris Paul, who missed his second straight game in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. He took time to celebrate the victory on Twitter and praised coach Monty Williams for his “big-time play call.”

Indeed, it was a nice play call, and Williams made sure Ayton was prepared to dunk immediately after catching the ball.

“DA — if he throws it, you gotta try to dunk it,” Williams said. “Okay?”

Ayton was ready and obliged. As a result of his make, NBA Twitter erupted and celebrated the exciting end to yet another tightly-contested playoff battle. 

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How Suns perfectly executed game-winning play — and why goaltending didn’t apply on Deandre Ayton’s dunk

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How Suns perfectly executed game-winning play — and why goaltending didn't apply on Deandre Ayton's dunk

Back in December 2017, the Suns and Grizzlies found themselves in a down-to-the-wire contest. Phoenix had the ball with just 0.6 seconds on the clock and the game tied at 97.

So what did then-Suns coach Jay Triano do? He unveiled a play that he had kept in his back pocket for years.

MORE: Chris Paul reacts to Deandre Ayton’s game-winning dunk

While standing on the sideline near the Grizzlies’ bench, Dragan Bender threw a pass toward Tyson Chandler that floated directly above the rim, giving Chandler the opportunity to slam it through the bottom of the net. Wait, you can do that?

“You cannot goaltend a ball that isn’t going to count,” Triano told reporters after the game.

More than three years later, Triano’s words were once again ringing throughout Phoenix Suns Arena. Coach Monty Williams drew up a similar play on Tuesday night, and his players executed it perfectly to give the Suns a stunning 104-103 win over the Clippers and a 2-0 series lead in the Western Conference finals.

Look at this beauty:

OK, let’s break down what NBA TV’s Matt Winer called “The Valley Oop.” (Great work, Matt).

First, notice the positioning of DeMarcus Cousins. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue made a smart move by putting Cousins on Jae Crowder in order to make an inbound pass more difficult, but Cousins is squared up to Crowder, opening up the passing lane Crowder needs.

As for the action in the paint, Devin Booker sets a terrific screen on Ivica Zubac, allowing Deandre Ayton to break free. Could Nicolas Batum have bumped Ayton and recovered? Possibly, but he is understandably concerned with leaving Booker.

(NBA)

Once Ayton gets a step on Zubac running toward the basket, it’s on Crowder to put the ball in a spot in which Ayton can score. As you can see from the angle below, Crowder just narrowly avoids the backboard. The placement here is simply incredible.

“That’s definitely Jae’s game-winner,” Ayton said after the game.

deandre ayton suns play
(NBA)

Now, you may still be asking, “But why isn’t that a goaltending violation?”

As the NBA explained in its Last Two Minute Report from that December 2017 game, “Goaltending rules do not apply because (Chandler) makes contact with the ball off of a throw-in and not a live ball that has already legally been touched on the playing court.” Scott Foster, who served as the crew chief on Tuesday, offered the same explanation when asked about Ayton’s dunk.

Sometimes less than a second can be all the time in the world. Just ask any Suns fan.

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Clippers’ Paul George misses crucial free throws in stunning Game 2 loss to Suns

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Clippers' Paul George misses crucial free throws in stunning Game 2 loss to Suns

The box score from Tuesday’s Suns-Clippers game — a pivotal Game 2 win for Phoenix in the Western Conference finals — will show Paul George had a decent game.

Twenty-six points, on 10-of-23 shooting; six assists; six rebounds; and 5-of-10 shooting from the free throw line. He also scored his team’s last six points, all within the last minute, to help the Clippers to a 103-102 lead with just 8.2 seconds remaining.

The only stats that ultimately mattered in the Clippers’ 104-103 loss, however, were the final two free throws George — a career 84.7-percent free throw shooter — missed. They ultimately allowed Phoenix a chance at an unbelievable comeback victory, which may prove costly even as the series heads back to LA.

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Had George sunk both of those shots, the Suns would have needed a 3-pointer just to send the game to overtime. Had he sunk even one shot, they would have needed a 2-pointer. But he missed both, allowing the Suns to win on an inbound dunk with less than a second remaining:

Credit to Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder and the Suns. That play will go down as one of the top plays in NBA playoffs history. But every heartbreaking loss needs a goat, and no one fits the bill better than “Playoff P,” who could have secured a win for his team with the simplest of basketball scoring plays.

Here’s the bright side for the Clippers, if there is one: They have already overcome 2-0 deficits in each of their first two series against the Mavericks and Jazz, respectively. That’s likely a cold comfort as George and Co. head back to LA, however. The scathing Twitter comments aimed at George likely won’t do anything to help, either:

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