Ringing Staples Center on a videoboard, and projected dozens of feet high in the corners of the arena’s highest reaches, the Clippers’ marketing campaign has been impossible to miss this postseason.
But “Playoffs Our Way” has never rang so true as Saturday.
For better or worse, the Clippers have carved a postseason path that is uniquely difficult, uniquely theirs and continues yet again.
For each of their first two rounds, they have lost the first two games, then the opening minutes of the third. Yet facing quasi-elimination — no team in NBA history has won a series when trailing 3-0 — they have yet to lose control of their season. For the second time in as many series, the Clippers cannot be counted out after another rally to win another Game 3, a 132-106 win over the Utah Jazz that cuts their deficit in this second-round series to 2-1 entering Monday’s fourth game.
When the Clippers acquired Kawhi Leonard and Paul George two years ago, they imagined postseason games going this way: their pair of All-Stars taking a defense’s best shot in tandem and doing one better. Leonard scored 24 of his 34 points after halftime, and George ignited the Clippers’ comeback with a dunk in traffic, the start of a 31-point game, his first 30-point night since April 23.
“With our two guys, we know that they are two of the best in the league,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “I don’t go to Mastro’s to order the ketchup. I go to order the steak. And tonight, our guys want steak."
George left the court waving to fans having rested the final three minutes of the fourth next to Leonard, who added 12 rebounds, to mark their first time since Game 5 of the 2020 first round, 17 games in all, that they had each scored at least 30 points in a postseason game.
Outplayed by Utah’s best players in the first two games, there was no comparison Saturday.
“Our chemistry is still growing,” Leonard said, adding he and George had to “rebuild” their chemistry while transitioning from Doc Rivers’ offense to Lue’s. “We’re both out there just trying to win a basketball game. If one of us has it going, or one of our teammates, we’re going to look for them.”
Donovan Mitchell scored 30 for the Jazz but was unable to take the game over at its start and finish, helping the Clippers win a shootout after making 19 of their 36 three-pointers to Utah’s 19-of-44 shooting from deep.
Sixteen Utah turnovers led to 24 points for Los Angeles, mistakes that covered up the Clippers’ own at times.
“A couple rotations we messed up on but the biggest thing is point of emphasis was handling Donovan tonight, no easy baskets,” Lue said. “He earned pretty much everything he got.”
When the Clippers took a timeout after only 74 seconds, having already allowed Joe Ingles two open three-pointers and with them an 8-0 Utah lead, it bordered on self-plagiarism from their first-round script.
Yet so did what followed.
Just as against Dallas, the Clippers not only looked undaunted by the unenviable hole they’d dug, they played looser, channeling Lue’s comment before tipoff that “we’re not shaken.”
Fast and effective traps of Mitchell far from the three-point arc helped hold him scoreless in the first for the first time in any postseason quarter since 2019.
“They turned it up with their physicalness and aggressiveness,” Ingles said. “Biggest difference is they played a lot more small, double-teaming Donovan, blitzing him. We were still prepared for it, but we didn’t execute it.”
The Clippers’ focus on their game plan carried over to offense. When Rudy Gobert went to the bench, they attacked his replacement Derrick Favors. That led to 20 paint points before halftime — double their first-half output from Game 2.
Charging from behind on a trap midway through the second quarter, Leonard ripped Mitchell’s spin-move dribble away and turned the steal into a transition dunk for a seven-point lead. Seconds later, he blocked Mitchell’s wild shot attempt in the paint while again serving as a helping defender.
Though Leonard made only four shots in the first half, by taking 12 he rarely allowed Utah’s defense breath. Not even halfway through the third quarter, he’d blown by Royce O’Neale and evaded Gobert for a right-handed dunk and layup on consecutive possessions to push the Clippers’ lead to 14. He scored 12 in the third quarter.
For as much as Lue lauded the way George’s study sessions with assistant and former point guard Chauncey Billups had read Utah’s defense and found open teammates, such deference had reached its limits. After 18 shots in all of Game 1 and 17 in Game 2, George attempted 16 before halftime Saturday and a playoff-high 24 by the end. Leonard also took 24 shots.
When George looks for his shot early “we’re a different team, we know that,” Lue said. “It’s been like that all season long.”
Said George: “We both understand we’ve got to be aggressive from this point on and do whatever it takes to win. That’s just a mentality we had to come out.”
Mitchell limped to the locker room with six minutes to play but quickly returned to the bench and draped an arm around coach Quin Snyder. Their chat was still happening as Leonard and Nicolas Batum made three-pointers within 38 seconds to extend their lead to 21. Mitchell was healthy enough to return, Snyder said later, but the lead made the point of any return moot.
The Clippers have scarcely removed the pressure off their shoulders ahead of Game 4. But fighting from behind seems to be the only way the Clippers know.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.