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Clippers get defensive, top Suns in another dramatic Game 3 showing

LOS ANGELES — From the opening tip, two things were in Devin Booker’s face.

One was the mask, something he wore to help protect the nose that he broke the game before. Despite the fact Booker said postgame, “the nose feels fine,” the mask clearly bothered him, he kept fidgeting with and adjusting it all game.

The other was Patrick Beverley. The Clippers’ most aggressive defender was in Booker’s face, up against his body and initiating contact — he would not let Booker get comfortable or any momentum of movement to create space.

The result was Booker shooting 5-of-21 shooting overall, 1-of-7 from three, and he picked up a frustration double-technical with Beverley. Chris Paul returned from COVID, but he couldn’t find a rhythm either and finished with 15 points on 5-of-19 shooting.

Tip your cap to the Clippers, who played their best defensive game of the series – the Suns had a 97.2 offensive rating — and got an offensive push in the second half from Reggie Jackson and Paul George. For the third time this postseason, the Clippers won Game 3 of a series after dropping the first two. This time it was a 106-92 Los Angeles win.

Phoenix still leads the series 2-1, with Game 4 Sunday in Los Angeles.

“This team is resilient, we never quit, we never say die, we never lose confidence,” Jackson said after he scored 23 points on the night.

The Suns and their fans look at the 10-of-40 shooting from their All-Star backcourt and rightfully think things will change in Game 4. They should also expect more Deandre Ayton to punish the Clippers’ smaller lineups. However, the Mavericks and Jazz expected bounce-back games against these Clippers well and found it far more challenging than expected.

Credit Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, who has instilled his steady demeanor to go with the Clippers’ confidence. First, after a gut-punch loss to the Suns in Game 2, Lue said he called George and Patrick Beverley as soon as the plane landed and they were driving home — some time in the middle of the night — to start to change the team’s mindset for Game 3.

“We landed, we got back home, first person I called was PG,” Lue said. “I just told him ‘we wouldn’t be in this position without you. That game’s over, it happens, it doesn’t mean anything…’

“I called him, I called Pat Beverley, a few guys.”

Then there were the adjustments. In the second half, the Lue leaned into the small-ball lineups that would drive, kick out, and replace over and over until they found a seam in the scrambling Suns’ defense that led to a 3-pointer or a lay-up.

“In the first half I thought we were stagnant, trying to do it all ourselves,” Lue said. “In the second half, we moved the ball, made plays for our teammates.”

The first half of this game was not pretty. In the first quarter, the Clippers shot 3-of-13 from 3 (missing some wide-open looks) while the Suns shoot 37.5% as a team and Booker starts 0-of-6 from the field. Los Angeles led 29-21 after one, but the game still felt very unsettled.

In the second quarter, the Clippers still had a small eight-point lead, but everything fell apart when George went to the bench. Los Angeles could not generate any offense and the Suns quickly took the lead and were up 48-46 at the half. That despite Booker and Paul starting the game 1-of-13 shooting.

“I shot terrible. I got to be better. I’ll be better next game,” Paul said.

Paul got extra run in this one because Cameron Payne injured his ankle and did not return. The status of Payne — whose pace of play has been a boost to the Suns this series — for Game 4 is unknown.

The Clippers came out in the third with a renewed defensive energy, and on offense Jackson and Beverley went at Booker to draw fouls. It all worked, and the Clippers went on a 21-3 run that ultimately decided the game.

The Clipper lead got up to 15 but had been trimmed to eight late in the third, and then Paul George did this.

At that point, it just seemed like the Clippers’ night (the Clippers were 9-of-17 from three in the second half). George finished the night with 27 points but on 9-of-26 shooting. Terance Mann had another key game for the Clippers, scoring 12 on 6-of-8 shooting and hounding CP3 defensively all night.

Game 3 has been the Clippers’ night all playoffs long, but replicating that in Game 4 against a Suns team bound to shoot better will be a tall order.