Heading into Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, Los Angeles Clippers guards Patrick Beverley and Terance Mann had only ever started one game together — in October of 2019.
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Down 2-0 and with no historical evidence that a 3-0 series deficit in the NBA Playoffs can be overcome, the pairing of Beverley and Mann — both excellent on-ball defenders — was anything but a coincidence. Hours earlier, Clippers head coach Ty Lue had been clear about the team’s top priority entering Thursday’s game.
“Our guys’ mindset is [to] come out tonight [and] have a defensive focus, have a defensive mindset,” said Lue. With good reason.
11-time All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who missed the first two games of the series due to a positive COVID-19 test, would be rejoining Devin Booker in the Suns’ backcourt and was expected to further bolster a Phoenix offense that had laid waste to L.A. in Game 1 and shown resilience in a stunning, last-second win in Game 2.
“We know they’re going to be confident over there, and they should be,” Lue said. “But we’ll be up for the challenge tonight.”
And up to the challenge they were, especially Beverley and Mann, as the Clippers scored a 106-92 victory and halved Phoenix’s series edge.
Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide
With Mann checking Paul and Beverley glued to Booker, the Clippers duo bothered the Suns’ top guards from the start. In the first quarter, Paul and Booker — the latter wearing a protective face mask after breaking his nose on Beverley’s forehead in Game 2 — combined to shoot 0-for-9 from the field and scored zero points.
And their accuracy didn’t improve all that much over the next three frames. Neither registered more than two buckets in any individual quarter, and for the game, Paul and Booker shot just 10-for-40 from the floor including 3-for-14 from behind the arc.
Afterward, when he wasn’t answering questions about his nose (“The nose feels fine”) or the face mask (“I honestly don’t really see it or it doesn’t affect me”) Booker touched on Beverley’s harassing style of defense.
“He’s ultra-aggressive. He’s denying, limiting touches,” said Booker, who finished with 15 points on 5-for-21 shooting, five assists and four turnovers. “He has one objective out there, and we understand that.”
The objective, clearly, is to smother Booker, which he did throughout, most noticeably when Booker was trying to bring the ball up the court. But Suns coach Monty Williams wasn’t willing to give all the credit to Beverley for Booker’s shooting woes.
“Tip your hat to Beverley,” said Williams. “He plays really good defense. He’s aggressive. But when I look at the film, I’ll bet you’ll just see Book miss some shots.”
Booker did miss some open shots, no doubt about it, but perhaps some of that was due to Beverley’s reputation as a terrific trailing defender.
“Pat is the best rearview challenge guy in the game,” said Lue. “He’s going to block the shot from behind, contest from behind and make it hard on you. He gets into the ball.”
Though Paul’s shooting (5-for-19) was essentially just as horrid as Booker’s, he was at least able to find his teammates regularly, finishing with a game-high 12 assists and only turning the ball over twice. But his pace was clearly slower than in the previous two rounds, and the difference in each team’s energy level was noticeable, even to Paul.
“They just outplayed us tonight,” said Paul, who was forced into extra minutes after Cameron Payne rolled his ankle at the end of the first quarter. “We didn’t make shots. You could tell they had a lot more energy. I got to be better. I shot terrible. I’ve got to pick up the pace.”
Mann and Beverley Brought More Than Just D
Aside from their defense, Beverley and Mann were difference makers in other ways, too.
Going into halftime, despite Paul and Booker’s shooting struggles, the Suns were still up by two. The Clippers’ offense had become stagnant at times, and in the locker room, Beverley implored his team to come out strong in the third quarter.
“Pat Bev was energized, fired up about us not letting go, not letting our foot off the gas and figuring out how to be better,” said guard Reggie Jackson, who scored 23 points.
Whatever Beverley said, it worked. The Clippers outscored the Suns 34-21 in the third, and Mann was the primary driver. He scored 10 points in the quarter (12 overall) while shooting 5-of-6 from the field. Most of Mann’s points came in the paint, including two hard-fought offensive rebounds that he converted into layups.
“I realized I need to be a little bit more aggressive in order for us to win or having a chance to win,” said Mann. “Especially when the game is going where we are just taking jump shots and not a lot of guys came downhill. I just put my head down and got downhill.”
“He can get out. He’s athletic. He allows us to play faster where we can get the ball up to him,” said Paul George about Mann’s offense.
And when George was asked Mann’s about defense, specifically if the second-year guard had learned anything from him about passing lanes and angling his body, George, a four-time All-Defensive selection, gave Mann his due.
“I mean, I can’t take credit for that,” insisted George. “A lot of what he does is just instincts and you can’t teach that. I think that’s one of the best skills that you can have — instincts to just make plays. And T-Mann has it.”