Sports

Mann unlikely hero as Clips rally into first WCF

LOS ANGELES — Patrick Beverley, Terance Mann and Reggie Jackson stood on the court and urged the first sellout crowd at Staples Center in over a year to cheer even louder as history was unfolding in dramatic fashion.

For the first time in their 51-year history, the LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference finals. And they did it the only way this star-crossed franchise could — the hard way.

Falling behind by 25 in the opening seconds of the third quarter, the Clippers mounted a furious and historic comeback, going on an improbable 75-40 run to eliminate the Utah Jazz 131-119 and advance to face the Phoenix Suns.

“This was my first time experiencing a crowd like this,” said Paul George, who grew up in Palmdale, a suburb just outside Los Angeles, and joined Kawhi Leonard in 2019 to take the Clippers further than they had ever been. “It was just a special night. You felt it, the cheers, the excitement. You felt the monkey off of the Clippers’ back in terms of getting out of the second round.”

Just over nine months after blowing a 3-1 lead in the second round in embarrassing fashion to the Denver Nuggets last postseason, LA completed an epic comeback that set off a tidal wave of emotions from a fan base that has experienced mostly heartache and frustration.

The Clippers are usually the ones on the wrong end of improbable comebacks. But not this postseason. They trailed by 22 at the half and completed the largest halftime comeback in a series-clinching win in NBA history, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. They also became the first team to erase a 20-plus-point deficit in a series-clinching win over the past 25 seasons.

“I was here when we were an eighth seed, celebrating just to get into the playoffs,” said Beverley, who has been with the team since 2017. “To finish a game like this, to make history, it’s special because [I’ve poured] blood, sweat and tears into this s—. Injuries, friends getting traded … to be the last man standing and write history is special.”

The most memorable comeback in Clippers history was ignited by Mann. Starting for the second straight game for an injured Leonard, the second-year forward who averaged 7.0 points per game this season delivered the game of his life. Mann scored 39 points and hit 7 of 10 3-pointers for LA.

“I just had to lock in and do what I had to do,” said Mann, the No. 48 pick in the 2019 draft. “They were leaving me open.”

With Leonard watching inside the building, George completed a terrific series with a near triple-double of 28 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists to go with 3 steals. And Jackson continued his stellar postseason with more clutch shots, scoring 22 of his 27 points and dishing all 10 of his assists in the second-half comeback.

The Clippers needed everything they could muster to overcome Donovan Mitchell. The hobbled Utah star would not go out without a fight, scoring 39 points and hitting 9 of 15 triples to go with nine assists and nine rebounds on a bad ankle.

“It hasn’t fully sunk in for me yet,” Mitchell, who was a game-time decision, said of being eliminated from the playoffs. “I’m still in shock. … I don’t know what the hell I’m going to be doing next week. I’ll probably be sitting here, mad as hell, watching the games and doing whatever. … This is gonna eat at me for a long time watching the Clippers and the Suns play in the conference finals.”

The Clippers were previously 0-8 all time with a chance to clinch a conference finals appearance. They had lost those games by an average of 14.9 points.

But Friday’s win not only put an end to what was the longest losing streak with a chance to make a conference finals in NBA history but also helped close some of the wounds from last year’s playoff collapse in the bubble.

“One of the biggest things we try to do from day one is wash it,” Jackson said of last year’s collapse. “Wash the season we had behind us. It’s easier said than done. Bring a little of that animosity, a little bit of that sour taste from last year, but it was a whole new team.”

This postseason, the Clippers made their own history. They trailed Utah 2-0 but won four straight after that to become the first team in NBA history to overcome multiple 2-0 series deficits in a single postseason. They were down 2-0 in the first round to the Dallas Mavericks before winning that series in seven games.

With 17,105 fans packing Staples Center for a basketball game for the first time since before the coronavirus pandemic after health restrictions were lifted in California, the Clippers overcame a hot start by Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson. With Jazz starting point guard Mike Conley Jr. playing in the series for the first time since injuring his hamstring in the first round, Mitchell shook off his injury early and scored 16 points in the first quarter on an array of dazzling drives to the basket to go with three 3-pointers. And then Clarkson caught fire, scoring 17 straight at one point in the second quarter to help Utah go into the half up 72-50.

Utah pushed the lead to 75-50, but Mann wouldn’t let the Clippers fold. He scored 20 points in just under nine minutes, and LA cut it to 90-88 before heading into the fourth down three.

Clippers coach Ty Lue’s decision to go small paid off for the second straight series. Mann, who is 6-foot-5, did a lot of his damage on Rudy Gobert, the 7-1 Defensive Player of the Year. Mann scored 30 of his 39 with Gobert as the primary defender, becoming the third player to score 30 against a single primary defender in a playoff game, according to ESPN Stats & Info data.

“You saw a full complete game from a second-year player,” George said. “I mean, you saw him stretch the floor. You saw him defensively. You saw him rebound. You saw him muscle his way to the basket. You just saw so many flashes of so many different things. He did it in the most crucial part of the game. I think that’s what’s most impressive.

“Honestly, he single-handedly willed us back through that stretch where he just — 3 after 3 to downhill attacks to defending. He did it all.”

The Jazz could not stop the Clippers, who shot 30-for-42 (71.4%) in the second half, the highest percentage in a second half of a playoff game over the past 25 postseasons.

After Nicolas Batum hit a 3 to give the Clippers a 107-100 lead with 8:40 remaining, the Jazz took a timeout. During that timeout and each one that followed, Beverley, Mann and Jackson kept prodding Clippers fans to get louder.

When Lue took out his starters with 37.9 seconds remaining, the party was well underway, with Mann as the final starter to go to the bench to thunderous applause.

The LA Clippers are heading to the conference finals, leaving the Pelicans and Hornets as the last two active franchises to have never been to that round.

Said Lue, who replaced Doc Rivers after last year’s playoff meltdown: “Just seeing our fans and how they stayed to the end and how they were cheering, it just felt good. … The team has been starving for success, and the fan base has been doing the same thing.”

The former Lakers point guard then said the Clippers’ rivals’ fan base should join in on the celebration.

“I know the Lakers are out and there’s a lot of Laker fans here,” Lue said. “But once the Lakers are gone, if we’re not playing the Lakers, you should be cheering for the Clippers because it’s all in one city. I can just feel the love, and I’m very happy and proud of our guys.”

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