At this point in the Clippers‘ postseason, hours away from facing Phoenix in their first-ever conference finals and on the heels of consecutive come-from-behind series wins over Dallas and Utah — the latter of which cost them their undisputed team leader to injury — there has emerged more than a handful of heroes.
Terance Mann is the most recent headliner, but crucial contributors, both expected and unexpected, can be found up and down the roster. Kawhi Leonard before his knee injury, Paul George and Reggie Jackson, of course, Marcus Morris and Nicolas Batum, Patrick Beverley and Luke Kennard — the list is unusually long.
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But more than anything else, more than any individual performance or specific turning point, the Clippers playoff success so far this season is best encompassed in one word: Resilience.
Lue Big Reason for Success
“This team is dope, man,” said Jackson after a series-clinching victory in Game 6 against Utah. “This team is a resilient group.”
Trailing 0-2 in both the first and second rounds, and with historic franchise failure an ever-present cloud overhead, the Clippers battled back in both instances, going 8-1 outside of their four initial losses and punctuating the Jazz series with a stunning 25-point comeback spearheaded by Mann’s 39 points as well as several crucial buckets down the stretch by Jackson who finished with 27.
“They never really hung their heads,” said Jackson. “I just tried to remain a confident individual, so it was no worries for me. I knew we would figure it out and that’s how I felt, I was confident we would figure it out.”
“W is all that matters, whether it’s pretty or it’s ugly, we’ll take it,” said George, who scored 37 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in a Game 5 victory over Utah on the same day the team learned Leonard would be out indefinitely with a knee injury. “Playoffs is about grit. It’s about fighting. It’s about whatever it takes, and time after time, I think we’ve shown that.”
“Our team,” said coach Ty Lue, “they just don’t quit.”
Lue himself is a significant reason for the Clippers’ never-say-die attitude and their knack for winning the big game. After all, this is not his first rodeo. Spanning three seasons at the helm in Cleveland and this first season in Los Angeles following the firing of Doc Rivers (for whom Lue was an assistant) Lue is, according to ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry, 12-1 as a coach when his team has a chance to advance with a win. Best in NBA history, as Goldsberry points out.
Indeed, throughout the playoffs and particularly following the conclusion of the Utah series, Clipper after Clipper has lauded Lue’s overall cool demeanor and capacity for making the correct adjustments at the correct time, buttressing the players’ resilience when things looked bleakest.
“He always finds a way to talk to us so we don’t panic,” said Batum. “We stay calm. We stay cool.” Batum specifically cited Game 3 in Dallas when the Clippers, already down 2-0, fell behind 30-11 in the first quarter, as well as Friday’s Game 6 comeback, as moments when Lue shined.
“We lose that game and we go back to that crazy place in Utah,” said Batum about the prospect of a Game 7 on the road. “[Lue] finds a way. Get good guys, get a good shot and get a system. We won this game. I love that coach. You have to give him credit. T-Lue is an amazing coach and he showed it again tonight.”
George echoed Batum’s praise of Lue when he was asked what he thought were the biggest factors behind L.A.’s ability to pick themselves off the canvas.
“T-Lue. T-Lue. Adjustments after adjustments,” George told reporters. “You know, got to give most of the credit to him and the guys just doing whatever it takes, willing game after game, just willing these wins out and just playing with straight toughness and trusting each other.”
Lue Brings Calm, Fans Bring Energy
Lue acknowledges that one of his superpowers is staying calm in the face of pressure, periodically mentioning the obstacles he overcame as a young man in becoming an NBA player. In 2017, when Lue was still heading Cleveland and one year after he helped the Cavs become the first team in league history to overcome a 3-1 deficit in The NBA Finals, LeBron James talked about his coach’s ability to put things in perspective.
“I just think it’s his level of calmness, no matter what’s going on,” James said of Lue. “He’s always talking about at the end of the day, he’s already won in life, so whatever happens after this is extra credit, and I feel the same way… it’s the even-keel mentality of our coach, and it definitely helps us as players when we’re going out into a war.”
Cool customer notwithstanding, Lue does not expect nor desire a similar level of restraint from the home crowds at Staples Center, and he talked about how important the crowd’s enthusiasm was during the Game 6 comeback. Staples Center was one of the last arenas in the league to let back in fans this season, and Friday’s game featured the largest crowd for a Clippers game in 15 months. Dallas, on the other hand, had most of their fans in the house for the entirety of the first round, as did Utah in the semifinals.
“Dallas had all their fans, Utah had all their fans, but our crowd was unbelievable tonight,” Lue said to reporters. “Even when they got down, we fed off that positivity and we couldn’t have done it without our fans. If we don’t have our whole building here today rocking the way it did, it would have been a tough game for us to win.”
George, an LA native, concurred. “The whole night was special — to be able to be in this arena and to feel that playoff atmosphere in front of my hometown, my friends, my family. So many important people in my life are in this building. It was a special night, a special night. You felt it, the cheers, the excitement,” said George.
And veteran Beverley, the longest-tenured Clipper currently on the roster and whose on-ball defense against Jazz star Donovan Mitchell helped turn the series around, was thrilled for the fans in the crowd and the city in general.
“They deserve it. The city deserves it,” said Beverley. “As long as I’ve been here, [we’ve] been working our ass off trying to change the culture of this team. Try to, you know, make us one of those grit teams, those grinding teams. You know, for that to be on full display tonight is very special.”
Which is to not say anyone is interested in having to make another series comeback against Phoenix.
“Going into this next series,” said Jackson, “we don’t want to dig that hole.”