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The improbable becomes the hero as Terance Mann, Clippers end Utah's season

Los Angeles Clippers guard Terance Mann shoots during the second half in Game 6 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Utah Jazz Friday, June 18, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Clippers guard Terance Mann shoots during the second half in Game 6 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Utah Jazz Friday, June 18, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY — In the corner, Terance Mann is still probably putting up uncontested 3-pointers.

And why shouldn't he be? He was the Mann of the hour, the night, and — ultimately — the series. It was a performance that propelled the Los Angeles Clippers to a historic and improbable postseason effort — a 131-119 win over the best team in the league to claim the franchise's first-ever Western Conference Finals appearance.

For his heroics, the raucous crowd at a sold-out Staples Center for the first time this season let him know with a standing ovation.

In the end, it wasn't Kawhi Leonard or Paul George that pushed the Clippers past the Jazz — though their individual heroics in previous games of the best-of-seven series spoke volumes on their own — but a second-year guard making the most of the opportunity at hand.

"He did it in the most crucial part of the game," George said. "I think that's what's most impressive. Honestly, he single handedly willed us back through that stretch where he just hit three after three, to downhill attacks, to defending, he did it all."

And while it may have surprised those tuning into the ESPN broadcast Friday night, Mann's abilities have been put on display before, according to those who know him best — even if he hadn't scored more than 30 points in a game since high school.

"Salute to Terance Mann," Utah's Donovan Mitchell said. "I've played against Terance since middle school. He's always been a dog and a warrior."

His teammate Paul George, who he became close with early on when Mann was selected by the Clippers with the second-round pick in the 2019 NBA draft, said he's seen "flashes" of talent from Mann since "the beginning."

"His tenacity was what I needed to get me back playing at an elite level," George said. "Going against him was fun, we challenged each other. I hope I was able to pass some things off to him, but, you know, we grew a really good relationship. ... I got to see him up close, and so I was a fan from from day one."

The 24-year-old shooting guard out of Florida State was added to the starting lineup Friday night to replace injured superstar Kawhi Leonard in a critical Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals. And he delivered when it mattered most. Mann scored a game-high 39 points on 15-of-21 shooting, including a blistering 7 of 10 from deep.

"I mean, I trust my work," Mann said, without a hint of skepticism in his career night. "When you trust in your work, you trust in yourself, you're not surprised when any of this happens."

He was seemingly unstoppable all night.

On multiple occasions in the second half in particular, Utah switched to guard higher-priority shooters — someone like George or Reggie Jackson, who have torched the Jazz all series with their shot selection — from behind the arc. It left Rudy Gobert, who was hampered with a hip injury sustained early in the game, to jump out and contest Mann out on the corner.

And time and time again, Mann was the benefactor of the switch as he drained shot after shot to erase a 25-point deficit the Jazz built up after an unstoppable shooting performance by Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson in the first half — Clarkson's 21 points in the second quarter alone was more than the entire Clippers unit that quarter (17 points).

But as dominant as Clarkson's second quarter performance was, Mann's was equally impressive — and maybe even more. He scored 20 points, including four 3-pointers, in the third quarter to steal Utah's thunder and to erase a chance of the Jazz evening up the series and sending it back home to Salt Lake City.

Mann wasn't about to let that happen or to let the momentum fade. His hot hand, which led a 70% 3-point shooting performance in the third quarter, was only topped by the team's 78% shooting — a from-the-high-ropes type finish — in the fourth quarter to put the final stamp on a four-game winning streak to steal the series.

His team now becomes the first-ever franchise to come back from a 2-0 deficit in back-to-back playoff series and advance to the next round. The Clippers may have done it the hard way, but the end result couldn't have been any sweeter, especially in front of the home crowd and passionate team owner Steve Ballmer sitting courtside.

"For him to come in a big game like this and step up and make seven threes, I mean, it was huge for us," Clippers coach Ty Lue said of his young player. "But having the confidence, you know, trusting in his work, it was unbelievable to see that tonight."

The Clippers now advance to face a red-hot Phoenix Suns team that swept the Denver Nuggets, a first in franchise history. And whether the series against the Jazz is the pinnacle of this year's playoffs, it was Mann that showed he's got a future in the league — even if it's just providing a spark to help the rest of his team catch fire.

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