No deficit has proved too great for the Clippers in these playoffs.
Not down 2-0, or 3-2, and not even when it comes to missing the injured Kawhi Leonard, one of their two All-NBA wings.
Coach Tyronn Lue said he isn’t fazed by the latest either, a 3-1 hole sealed in the Western Conference finals after an 84-80 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Saturday at Staples Center.
Lue is the only coach whose team has overcome a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven NBA Finals, a title path in which two of the final three victories came on the road, which would be the same scenario required for the Clippers to advance.
“Just focus on Monday’s game, that’s it,” Lue said. “Not focus on winning three games. Got to take it one game at a time, and that’s got to be our mind-set. We beat Utah and won four games in a row. So it’s very doable.
“We’ve just got to make sure we’re locked in and understand what we’re doing offensively. I think we’ve got to be more locked in offensively to beat this team.”
That much is clear. Trailing 71-70 with 10:07 to play and a chance to take their first lead of Game 4, the Clippers made two of their final 17 shots and were 0 for 12 with a chance to either take the lead or tie. That didn’t include two possessions that ended on shot-clock violations.
It was perhaps their worst offensive quarter of the season, and it happened to arrive at the worst time for their hopes of reaching a first NBA Finals.
“I think this team is resilient,” guard Reggie Jackson said. “This team is mentally tough and everybody is focusing on what they are doing back there, recovering.”
Four takeaways from Game 4:
1. Clippers fans were not the only voices asking why an out-of-bounds call off of forward Nicolas Batum — or was it Suns guard Cameron Payne? —- that gave Phoenix the ball with 7.8 seconds remaining was not reviewed. Even a dispassionate observer such as Stu Jackson, the NBA’s former executive vice president of basketball operations, whose duties included overseeing officiating, tweeted “My goodness! Why wouldn’t the officials go to the monitor to review an out of bounds call. Should have been @LAClippers ball!”
The play is reviewable “if the official has doubt,” said crew chief Zach Zarba in a pool report. “In this case there was no doubt on the out of bounds play so therefore replay wasn’t used.”
Asked whether either team had requested a review, Zarba said no, because a replay review is triggered “by the officials on the floor” whether or not they have doubt.
Lue said the Clippers would not follow up with the NBA about the lack of a review, while also mentioning that in Game 2, a review on an out-of-bounds play with 3.3 seconds left allowed Phoenix extra time to huddle and draw up their eventual game-winning, last-second lob thrown to Deandre Ayton.
“It’s crazy because everybody talks about it, because they got to review that 0.9 timeout with Ayton, and then not review it” in this instance, Lue said. “When it comes down the stretch to a close game like this, I think you have to just check it out just to be sure. And they didn’t do it, so. Not that it could have made a turn in changing the game. We still could have played better. It’s just part of it.”
2. Kawhi Leonard watched Game 4, his sixth consecutive absence because of a right knee strain, from a suite above the team’s bench, as he had in Game 3. When asked before tipoff about his reaction to Leonard watching from above — instead of on the bench, which was implied but unsaid — Lue smiled and chose not to engage in a point raised most prominently during Game 3’s broadcast by analyst Jeff Van Gundy.
“Yeah, I don’t know, no comment,” Lue said.
Could Leonard return for Game 5? The severity of his injury, and potential rehabilitation, has been left intentionally murky. His All-Star teammate Paul George, who has averaged 41.5 minutes since Leonard’s injury, said he wouldn’t want Leonard to return if he is not fully healthy.
“I can’t speak for him, to the health of Kawhi, if he’s not a hundred [percent], we don’t want him out there,” George said. “I mean, that’s just as a brother, as a teammate, his health long-term is more important than what’s going on now.
“I can’t speak on the extent of his injury or, you know, what he and cannot give us. Like I’ve been saying, his health is just more important than anything else.”
3. The Clippers took only nine three-pointers in the second half, an unusual number. It tied their season low for fewest attempted threes after halftime with a Jan. 3 game against Phoenix.
The Clippers led the NBA in three-point accuracy during the regular season but after making just four of their 22 threes in the first half, a decision was made to focus on getting to the rim. Lue described it almost as a silver lining from the loss. By making eight of their 13 shots in the paint in the third quarter, they fueled a resurgence in the quarter that saw them outscore Phoenix by 11.
“We got stops and we just played faster,” George said. “That was really what we did. We didn’t allow them to set up. We were pushing the ball and we were just in attack mode.”
Lue pointed to “an adjustment with [Ivica Zubac] and have him do something different. I’m not going to really talk about it, but allowed our guys to get downhill a little bit more and get into the paint. That’s good for us and that’s something we can use going into Game 5.”
But in the fourth, the Clippers made only two of their nine shots in the paint, with one point in transition.
4. There are two ways to look at this series for the Clippers: That even though they have played far from perfectly, they have been within only a few plays from leading the series — or deflated by the minuscule margins that have seen two winnable games slip away.
George said his mentality is “definitely hopeful, definitely positive” ahead of the team’s return to Phoenix for Game 5 on Monday.
“I mean, this series could be very different with a handful of plays that we could take back and different outcome on some of these plays,” he said. “Tonight was a tough one. We had an opportunity to take the lead for a couple possessions. We just had a hard time putting the basketball in the hole. That’s honestly the game. We played great defense.”
The Suns know better than to assume the Clippers are done, none more than Chris Paul, who experienced holding a 3-1 series lead in 2015 with the Clippers, only to lose the second-round series to Houston.
He won’t envision the first Finals appearance of his 16-year career until he sees the game plan for either Atlanta or Milwaukee.
“Not until the job is done,” Paul said. “We can talk about all that then, but right now it’s just laser focus. Three wins don’t win the series, so right now we did what we came here to do, we wanted to get one of these, and now we got to stay focused and be ready to go back to our crowd.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.