By DAVID BRANDT
PHOENIX (AP) — Paul George had just wrapped up his brilliant night, scoring 41 points to keep the Los Angeles Clippers’ season alive. He shared some hugs and fist bumps with teammates and assistant coaches before he finally got to head coach Tyronn Lue.
There were some words of encouragement. They were also apparently too hot for TV.
“I can’t share that,” George said with a grin, recalling the conversation. “Bleep this and bleep that.”
George set his playoff career high in scoring, Reggie Jackson added 23 and the feisty Clippers staved off elimination by beating the Phoenix Suns 116-102 on Monday night in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.
The Clippers have been counted out multiple times in this postseason. That continues to be a mistake.
“The group of guys we’ve got, I love those guys. They compete every single night no matter who is on the floor,” Lue said. “The work’s not done, but we came into a hostile environment and got a gritty win.
“We’ve got to do it again two more times.”
The series moves back to LA with the Suns holding a 3-2 advantage. Game 6 is Wednesday.
The short-handed Clippers were playing without two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and center Ivica Zubac, who missed his first game of the season with an MCL sprain in his right knee. They’ve already fought through two grueling series wins in these playoffs, coming back from 2-0 deficits to beat both the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz.
Now they’re trying to claw back against the Suns. Game 5 was a good start.
George was fantastic after a tough shooting night in Game 4, pouring in 20 points in the third quarter. He finished 15 of 20 from the field, including 3 of 6 from 3-point range and added 13 rebounds and six assists.
“If they were going to finish this series, they were going to have to work for it,” George said. “That’s just the mentality we had. We weren’t going to back down. We weren’t going to throw in the towel. The fact of the matter is they’ve got to beat us.”
Marcus Morris Sr., who played for Phoenix earlier in his career, added 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting.
The Suns trailed by as many as 15 points during the first half but took their first advantage in the third when Chris Paul knocked down a 16-foot jumper for a 62-61 lead. The Clippers responded with the next 10 points and then started sinking 3-pointers. George hit back-to-back 3s and Patrick Beverley added one to push LA ahead 82-70, gesturing to the Suns crowd as he jogged back down the court.
It was the common theme of the night: Every time the Suns got some momentum, the Clippers were there to squash it in a hurry.
The Clippers took a 91-78 lead into the fourth. The Suns pulled within 98-94 with 6:58 left but LA responded with a 10-2 run and pulled away for the win.
Devin Booker led the Suns with 31 points. Paul — who is trying to go to the NBA Finals for the first time in his 16-year career — added 22 points and eight assists. Deandre Ayton had 10 points and 11 rebounds.
“We’ve got to be better,” Paul said. ”They came out and they were the aggressors. They looked like us in Game 4. They hit us, they were too comfortable and we’ve got to be better.”
The Clippers played inspired basketball in the first half, jumping out to an 20-5 lead by halfway through the first quarter. Jackson threw down a huge one-handed jam during the run and LA hit nine of its first 11 shots.
“It is just unacceptable the way we started the game,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It was a big hole for us. It is pretty obvious that we can’t play with the show-up mentality. We showed up in the first quarter and they played with desperation.”
Morris was 6 of 7 in the first and Jackson made a layup at the buzzer to give the Clippers a 36-26 advantage going into the second.
The Suns cut the advantage to 44-42 midway through the second but the Clippers rallied again to push ahead by 10. Booker hit a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to cut the Clippers’ advantage 59-52.
Morris had 20 points in the first half.
The Suns are trying to make their first NBA Finals since 1993. The Clippers have never been this far in the postseason.
Clippers: DeMarcus Cousins had 10 points in just six minutes in the first half. He made 5 of 9 shots, putting a shot on the rim once every 40 seconds on average. … Leonard missed his seventh straight game. … This was the Clippers’ sixth double-digit win when trailing in a series this postseason. That is the most such wins in a single postseason in NBA history.
Suns: F Abdel Nader played in his second straight game after missing several weeks with a knee injury. He scored two points. … Phoenix announced a sellout crowd of 16,664.
The 7-foot Zubac has been an ironman for Los Angeles and this was the first game he’s missed for two years. Coach Tyronn Lue admitted the Clippers were down during morning shootaround after hearing that Zubac wouldn’t play.
Zubac moved into a more prominent role in these Western Conference finals, averaging 12.8 points and 11 rebounds in the first four games. He’s also been important on defense as a rim protector.
The Clippers went small to replace Zubac in the starting lineup, going with the 6-foot-5 Terance Mann.
Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George (13) passes as Phoenix Suns forward Cameron Johnson (23) looks on during the first half of game 5 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Finals, Monday, June 28, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)