Thursday's NBA playoffs: George leads Clippers over Paul and Suns, 106-92 in Game 3

By Michael Marot
Associated Press

Los Angeles — This time, Paul George didn't flinch. Playoff P showed up and dragged the Los Angeles Clippers back from the brink.

George scored 27 points and the Clippers pulled away in a dominant third quarter, beating newly returned Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns 106-92 on Thursday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.

Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George, left, shoots as Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton defends during the second half in Game 3 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Finals Thursday, June 24, 2021, in Los Angeles.

“We continue to chip away, try to find ways we can be better and impose our will on opponents,” Clippers guard Reggie Jackson said. “We showed a lot of heart, a lot of fight.”

The Clippers cut their series deficit to 2-1, ending the Suns' franchise-record playoff winning streak at nine games.

“Our guys keep grinding, keep fighting,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We never give in.”

Kawhi Leonard remained out with a right knee sprain, leaving George to carry the load again. After missing two crucial free throws in a one-point loss in Game 2, George had 15 rebounds and eight assists and played a game-high 43 minutes. He made 6 of 7 free throws.

“PG did a great job of just moving on and having a great game for us," Lue said.

The Suns got Paul back after he missed the first two games while being sidelined since June 16 because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols. The former Clipper, who was booed heartily during intros, had 15 points and 12 assists, but was 5 of 19 from the field.

“I have to get better. I shot terrible,” Paul said. “You could tell they had a lot more energy. I got to pick up the pace.”

Cameron Payne, who so ably filled in for Paul in the first two games, went down with a left ankle injury after playing four minutes and didn’t return.

“We missed him a lot,” Suns guard Devin Booker said.

Suns coach Monty Williams said he played Paul too much in his first game back.

“Probably got tired,” Williams said, “but it hurt us when Cam couldn’t come back so I left Chris out there for a longer stretch and that’s on me.”

Deandre Ayton led the Suns with 18 points.

Jackson added 23 points for the Clippers, and Ivica Zubac had 15 points and tied his career playoff high with 16 rebounds.

Game 4 is Saturday night at Staples Center.

After Phoenix won the first two games by a combined seven points, the teams played a close first half. George pumped up the Clippers going into the locker room with a thunderous one-handed dunk.

“That probably killed their momentum a little bit,” Jackson said. “We’re fortunate to have a guy like that that can do a little bit of everything.”

Los Angeles quickly went to work in the second half in front of 17,222 raucous, Thunder Stix-pounding fans.

They took control with the biggest run of the game, a 21-3 spurt that left them leading 71-56 in the third. Terance Mann got it going with six straight points and Jackson scored four in a row before George scored inside. Zubac dunked off George's pass and made a pair of free throws. The Suns were limited to a 3-pointer by Paul.

“They just brought it,” Williams said. “We just didn’t match their force.”

Booker picked up his third and fourth fouls in a 42-second span during the Clippers' run. Booker — wearing a clear mask to protect his broken nose after he and Patrick Beverley banged heads in Game 2 — was 5 of 21 from the field, making only one of seven 3-point tries, and finished with 15 points.

Jae Crowder, who assisted on Deandre Ayton's winning dunk on Tuesday, fouled out with 4:51 remaining. He had nine points, six rebounds and six assists.

The Suns were just 35 of 90 from the floor, despite getting decent looks.

“We weren’t sound at all,” Williams said. “They played good defense, but we didn’t run our offense the way that we have been running for most of the playoffs.”

George capped the third by banking in a 3-pointer from just inside midcourt, and it beat the buzzer, stunning the fans and sending the Clippers into the fourth leading 80-69. He nearly bobbled the ball along the right sideline, with Booker and Cam Johnson pressuring, before getting the shot off.

Luke Kennard opened the fourth with a 3 from the right corner, getting fouled and making the free throw. Marcus Morris hit a three before George got fouled. He confidently made both, keeping the Clippers ahead 89-71.

Booker's basket drew the Suns within six, but Jackson answered with five straight points and George made a pair of free throws.

More Thursday's NBA

Carlisle returns to Indiana

Indianapolis — When Kevin Pritchard hired a new coach in October, he took a calculated risk.

This time, the Indiana Pacers president of basketball operations went for the known commodity.

Pritchard hired longtime Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle on Thursday, bringing back the 61-year-old NBA veteran to the team that relaunched his head coaching career almost two decades ago. Carlisle confirmed the decision to The Associated Press, though the team had no immediate announcement.

Rick Carlisle

The Pacers clearly believe Carlisle can bring stability to a veteran team that battled a rash of injuries last season. The result was a losing record and their first playoff absence in six years.

Carlisle will get a chance to make a quick fix with the same organization he led led from 2003-07 and took to the Eastern Conference finals in his first season with the team.

This time, he becomes the third Pacers coach in less than 12 months.

Nate McMillan was fired in August following his fourth straight first-round playoff exit and just weeks after signing a contract extension. His replacement, Nate Bjorkgren, lasted just one tumultuous season in his first NBA head coaching gig before he was fired this month.

The Pacers know what they’re getting in Carlisle, too — a disciplined, old-school coach who spent three seasons as Larry Bird’s assistant during the most successful era in franchise history. Those traits could help the Pacers improve defensively after yielding 115.3 points per game, 25th in the league last season.

The bigger question might be whether Carlisle is the right fit.

After an embarrassing season-ending loss to Washington in the play-in round, Pritchard acknowledged Pacers players described Bjorkgren as a micromanager in their end-of-season interviews. The problems even spilled into public view during an in-game shouting match between backup center Goga Bitadze and assistant coach Greg Foster and amid reports of locker-room drama.

Carlisle had similar issues in his 13th and final season in Dallas.

Two-time All-Star Luka Doncic occasionally showed his anger by making angry gestures toward the coach during games and there were reports of “simmering tension” between the two before Carlisle resigned last week, one day after general manager Donnie Nelson left the club. Dallas owner Mark Cuban said it was Carlisle’s decision to leave.

Carlisle is 836-689 overall in tenures with the Pacers, Pistons and Mavs. He went 555-478 and led Dallas to its only NBA championship in 2010-11 with superstar Dirk Nowitzki and is the winningest coach in franchise history. But after making the title run, Carlisle didn’t win another playoff series.

The Mavericks lost in the first round six times, including this year and last year to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first two postseason appearances for Doncic.

Still, Cuban had said he expected Carlisle to return next season. But after the departure of Nelson, who once called Carlisle “our Jerry Sloan,” it didn’t take Carlisle long to decide it was time for a fresh start elsewhere.

Carlisle spent three seasons as Larry Bird’s assistant before taking the Detroit Pistons job in 2001. He was the 2001-02 NBA coach of the year. Two years later, Indiana brought back Carlisle, who went 181-147 in four seasons and was the East’s All-Star coach in 2004.

He also played five seasons in the NBA, winning a championship in 1985-86 as Bird’s teammate with the Boston Celtics. When his career ended in 1989, he spent the next decade bouncing around as an assistant before getting his big break in Detroit.