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Paul George answers critics with 41, Clippers beat Suns to stay alive, force Game 6

Segments of NBA Twitter seem to lie in wait for Paul George, ready to pounce on the slightest mistakes.

DeMarcus Cousins has George’s back.

“I don’t know where this trolling bulls*** comes from where the Internet controls the narrative about these players. It’s becoming foolish,” Cousins said. “That’s one of the most special players to ever lace his shoes up. Give this dude his flowers.”

George earned the full bouquet Monday night — 41 points, 30 of them in the second half when he shot 10-of-12, plus 13 rebounds and six assists. Whenever the Clippers needed a bucket in the second half, there was George as Los Angeles pulled away from the hard-charging Suns and picked up a 116-102 Game 5 win on the road.

The Clippers stayed alive, but the Suns still lead the Western Conference Finals 3-2 with Game 6 on Wednesday night in Los Angeles.

Even before an impressive playoff run this year, George had an NBA career nearly any player would envy: six-time All-NBA, four-time All-Defense, seven-time All-Star, and a comeback from a horrific leg injury that could have ended his career. Two years after that moment, he was helping Team USA win gold at the Rio Olympics.

Yet fans seem to focus on his shortcomings more than other stars — George has brought some of that, but not all, on himself with comments and actions. But he has noticed the trend.

“It’s a fact. But I can’t worry about that. It comes with the job, I guess…" George said. “To me, it doesn’t come down to just scoring. It’s just being able to play both ends, rebound, and make plays for others. And so I’m beyond [what some fans think], you know what I mean? I’m beyond that. I am who I am. I wish I could shoot 80%, 75%, on a nightly basis, but it’s not realistic.”

He shot that well in Game 5, 15-of-20 for the game. He got help from Reggie Jackson, who had 23 points, and Marcus Morris, who added 22.

The Clippers were without Ivica Zubac (knee), which forced Tyronn Lue to go small — however, that is where the Clippers have been the most comfortable this postseason. It’s the lineup the Clippers should play more this series.

Los Angeles came out playing zone and it threw Phoenix off — the Clippers raced out to a 7-0 lead that evolved into a 20-5 lead.

“It’s just unacceptable the way we started the game,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It was a big hole for us. It’s pretty obvious that we can’t play with a show-up mentality. We showed up in the first quarter and they played with desperation, simple and plain.”

Things could not have gone much better for the Clippers in the first half. They attacked the paint (34 points in the paint to the Suns 8), were strong on the glass despite playing small most of the half, and, most importantly, played fantastic and focused defense. They led 59-52 at the break, and it would have been more if not for a defensive lapse leading to a great shot by Booker.

In the third, the Suns made a push, but it was 20 points from George that kept pushing the Clippers out in front. Deandre Ayton, who has been so critical for the Suns all series, was far less impactful (he still had 10 points and 11 rebounds). Part of that was how the Clippers had lessened the impact of Rudy Gobert last series, and part of it was a strong night from DeMarcus Cousins off the bench, with 15 points and some solid play.

“He’s a great player,” Lue said of Cousins. “He went through some injuries, which is unfortunate. But guys forget, he was a max player before he went through all those injuries. Just having the post presence on the floor. He’s a great passer when he catches it down low. He’s tough to handle down there. Him having 15 points off the bench was a huge spark for us to allow PG and Reggie to get some rest and Marcus to get some rest.

Phoenix got 31 points from Devin Booker on 9-of-22 shooting (but 4-of-6 on 3-pointers), and 22 from Chris Paul, plus he had eight assists. It all wasn’t enough.

All playoffs long, when the Clippers have been challenged, their backs against the wall, they have found another gear. It’s how they came from 0-2 down in two series to be in the Western Conference Finals at all. These Clippers — unlike previous squads — can take a punch and come back harder. They are the definition of resilient.

Are the Suns? Their biggest test comes Wednesday night, when the Clippers head home and try to force a Game 7.