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Maybe the Los Angeles Clippers really are cursed.
They had every opportunity to win a brutally ugly Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, and when they did not fail themselves, the officials did them no favors in an 84-80 loss to the Phoenix Suns. Perhaps it is fitting that the fewest points allowed in a loss this entire NBA season dropped the Clippers into a 3-1 hole.
The Clippers did all the necessary work to turn a 50-36 halftime deficit into a three-point game entering the fourth quarter, and then all hell broke loose. Neither team could buy a bucket. They combined to miss 16 straight shots during one exhausting stretch. The Suns shot 4 for 19 from the field and 0 for 3 from 3-point range in the fourth quarter, and it was enough, because the Clippers finished the frame 3 for 19 and 0 for 6.
"This series could be very different with a handful of plays that we could take back and different outcomes on some of these plays," Clippers star Paul George told reporters after shooting 5 for 20 from the field, 1 for 9 from deep and missing six free throws. "Tonight was a tough one. We had an opportunity to take the lead for a couple possessions. We just had a hard time putting the basket in the hole. That’s honestly the game."
Outside of their 30-point third quarter, the Clippers scored a combined 50 points in the other three stanzas on 16-for-63 shooting from the field (25%) and 4-for-28 shooting from distance (14%). The heartbreak of a Game 4 loss that easily could have evened the series was felt far beyond their atrocious scoring efficiency.
The Clippers never led, trailing by as many as 16 points in the first half, but they gave themselves a chance. Once George missed a free throw that would have tied the game 71-71 with 10 minutes remaining, the Clippers had 10 opportunities to take the lead and missed all 10 shot attempts. They trailed by three for most of the final minute and never even got the chance to attempt a game-tying triple on five possessions.
"It was tough because we fought all the way get back to get it to a one-point game," said Clippers reserve Terance Mann, "and we had looks that we normally make all season that weren't falling. The game could've easily went a whole different way if we were hitting those shots. It's tough to see. It's tough to be a part of."
And missed shots maybe ranked fifth on the list of most frustrating developments in the final 58.5 seconds.
Mann was clearly fouled across the arm in front of referee Zach Zarba on a made layup just inside the one-minute mark, and no whistle was blown. That meant the difference between a 79-76 deficit and potentially a two-point game, no small concession on a night the Clips convert 5 of 31 attempts from beyond the arc.
George picked Suns star Chris Paul's pocket on the ensuing possession, but got called for a reach-in foul that looked clean in real time. Paul left the door open, missing two mid-range jumpers from his sweet spot, sandwiched 16 seconds around DeAndre Ayton's backbreaking ninth offensive rebound. It stayed 79-76.
The Suns refused to let the Clippers attempt a 3-pointer in the final minute, instead sending George to the line each time they had a chance. He converted both free throws to make it 79-78 with 13.2 seconds left.
That's when Nic Batum knocked the ball loose from Phoenix reserve Cameron Payne on the sideline. The ball rolled off Payne's fingertips on its way out of bounds, just as it had in the same situation two games earlier, when replay ruled Devin Booker last touched the ball, not Clippers guard Patrick Beverley, with nine seconds left in a game his Suns led by one. Despite pleas from the Clippers, officials opted against a review this time around, which would have given them the ball down one with eight seconds on the clock.
"The play is reviewable if the official has doubt," Zarba perplexingly told a pool reporter of a call very much in doubt. "In this case, there was no doubt on the out-of-bounds play, so therefore replay wasn’t used."
"When it comes down the stretch to a close game like this, I think you have to just check it out just to be sure," Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, no stranger to 3-1 series deficits, told reporters. "And they didn't do it."
As if the knife had not been twisted enough, the Clippers blew their last best chance to even the score in the waning seconds. DeMarcus Cousins, in his first 0.5 seconds of action, corralled George's intentionally missed free throw and was sent to the line down 81-78 with 5.8 seconds remaining. He made the first, and then tried intentionally missing the second, only it appeared he did not know the rule requiring his attempt to touch the rim, because he fired a fastball high off the glass for a violation. The game was essentially over.
You could not blame the Clippers for feeling cursed at this point. They lost two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to a knee injury in the conference semifinals. Game 1 of this series was played a scant 36 hours after their 25-point comeback to close the Utah Jazz out, while the Suns were working on six days rest, and the result was an unsurprising Phoenix win. The Clippers lost Game 2 on an absolutely wild last-second alley-oop to Ayton, and they lost this one, despite holding the Suns to their lowest point total of the season.
The Clippers could easily be leading this series 3-1, and we all know what happened when last they held such a series lead, so even that may not have been enough to keep the basketball gods from smiting them.
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