Clippers guard Reggie Jackson, left, celebrates with teammates Terance Mann, center, and Daniel Oturu during Game 5 win on Monday night in Phoenix. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Steve Ballmer flailing his fists. DeMarcus Cousins flexing his biceps. Reggie Jackson pumping his arms. Paul George barreling, banging, attacking.
A franchise that was once the epitome of failure was again the portrait of fight. A team that should be finished was again just getting started.
The Clippers spent much of their first three decades in Los Angeles being invisible, but now you can’t get rid of them, and will this wild, wondrous run ever end?
That is the question the Phoenix Suns are surely asking themselves today after the Clippers pushed them, dizzied them, and eventually flattened them in a 116-102 victory Monday in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals at Phoenix Suns Arena.
The Clippers were trailing three games to one and facing elimination in a hostile arena filled with chants of, “Beat L.A.” They didn’t blink, and now the only thing that’s been eliminated is doubt that they can pull this off.
The Clippers were tasked with surviving an on-the-brink game without not only their injured superstar Kawhi Leonard, but also without newly injured big man Ivica Zubac. They made every adjustment, made every big play, and now you wonder if there’s any setback that can stop them.
Facing elimination three times in this postseason, they are now 3-0 in those games. Facing the longest of odds — teams trailing three games to one in the conference finals are 4-52 — they continue to shockingly survive.
Game 6 is at Staples Center Wednesday, and the Clippers should be favored. Game 7 would be in Phoenix Friday night, and the Clippers have already won one of those.
Face it, if it wasn’t for a crazy last-second ally-oop in one game, and a bizarre fourth-quarter meltdown in another game, the Clippers would have already won four games in this series and be on their way to the NBA Finals.
Even short-handed, even with the Suns at full strength, the Clippers appear to be the better team in this series. As Monday night showed, they surely are the tougher team.
“We thrive in this moment, we come together even more so in these moments,” George said. “This team is just made up with toughness, we give everything we got and live with the results.”
Those results were silencing and stunning.
In an environment preparing for a party, the Clippers shut down the celebration early by jumping out to a 20-5 lead and spending the next two hours in a full sprint, falling behind only briefly in the third quarter before storming to the end.
“If they were going to finish this series, they were going to have to work for it,” George said. “That was the mentality we came in with.”
And how the Clippers worked them.
One game after again being the object of derision for a playoff meltdown, George finished with a career playoff high 41 points with 13 rebounds, including 20 points in a third quarter in which they withstood the Suns’ strongest charge.
“Situations like that, you really come together and find a way,” said George, later adding, “I’m going to go out there and hoop and give it everything I got.”
He was helped by the reappearance of Mr. June, with Reggie Jackson scoring 23 points while hitting two long three-pointers in the fourth quarter to clinch it.
“Reggie, man… he loves these moments,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “He was talking trash all day today. … he loves these types of moments. … performing on a big stage…backs against the wall.”
Then there was sore-kneed Marcus Morris scoring 13 points in the first quarter to start things, and Cousins, who replaced Zubac, scoring 15 points in 11 minutes to end things.
“He’s tough to handle down there,” said Lue of his decision to play the little-used Cousins, another great move in a postseason of great moves.
The Clippers were at their finest when after they lost the lead for the first time with 8:27 left in the third quarter, coming back to regain the lead and hold it even after the Suns later converted a five-point play.
With 5:53 left in the quarter, Patrick Beverley knocked down Chris Paul and dancingly mocked him for flopping even as Paul lay on the ground. That was an insensitive move by Beverley, and the flagrant foul resulted in three free throws by Paul followed by an ally-oop to Deandre Ayton to pull the Suns within four.
But still, the Clippers hung tough, Morris hitting a jumper, George hitting two threes, Beverley adding a three, and the Clippers riding George’s huge 20-point quarter into a 13-point lead entering the fourth quarter.
The Suns crept to within four again midway through that final quarter, but that’s when Jackson hit his two threes — adding a driving dunk — while George added a layup to help clinch it.
The game ended in silence. Come Wednesday, expect Staples Center to bring the noise … and the Clippers to bring the fight.
Clippers-Suns finals schedule (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.