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Column: Clippers still can’t escape bad old ways in loss to Suns

Clippers guard Paul George falls out of bounds after being fouled by Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul.
Clippers guard Paul George falls out of bounds after being fouled by Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul during the second half on Wednesday in Phoenix.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

He’s still the guy who hit the side of the backboard.

Doesn’t matter how many points Paul George has scored this month or how many rebounds he’s pulled down.

Until the Clippers take down the Lakers in a postseason series, George will be the player who spectacularly misfired a corner three-pointer on one of the worst nights in franchise history.

And they’re still the team that blew a three-games-to-one lead.

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Doesn’t matter the Clippers remain in third place in the Western Conference after 109-101 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday or how many games they’re ahead of the Lakers.

Until they reach the NBA Finals, the Clippers will be, well, the Clippers.

On its own, their track record presents formidable obstacles. The team’s health is threatening to make it insurmountable.

Which made coach Tyronn Lue’s pregame update on the sidelined Kawhi Leonard particularly disconcerting.

Basically, there was no update.

Asked when Leonard could return, Lue replied, “I’m not sure.”

DeMarcus Cousins’ presence with the Clippers has boosted the bench and proved that he has more basketball left in him.

Words continued to come out of Lue’s mouth, but most of them were designed to obfuscate.

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“I know he’s feeling good,” Lue said. “He’s been able to get on the court and do some workouts here and there. Not quite sure when he’s going to return. We thought possibly some time on this trip, but that wasn’t the case.”

So, yeah, Lue sounded uncertain.

Leonard has been limited to one game in nearly three weeks —23 minutes in a win over Minnesota on April 18 —with what the Clippers have described as a sore right foot. Whatever the actual diagnosis, it’s clear the injury has lingered longer than they expected.

Who knows how Leonard’s foot will hold up in a condensed postseason schedule?

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They entered Monday with a 6-2 record in games they played without Leonard this month. But they lost their only game in that stretch against a top opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers.

And they lost again Monday when they visited the second-place team in the West. They trailed the entire game, falling behind by 14 in the second quarter and trailing at the half by 10.

Behind a 28-point, 10-assist performance by Chris Paul, the Suns secured their first postseason berth since 2010. George played a well-rounded game, collecting 25 points, 10 rebounds and three steals, but didn’t have enough help.

Clippers guard Rajon Rondo drives as Phoenix Suns forward Frank Kaminsky defends.
Clippers guard Rajon Rondo drives as Phoenix Suns forward Frank Kaminsky defends during the second half on Wednesday in Phoenix.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

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With Leonard in their lineup, the Clippers won their two previous meetings with the Suns.

The triumphs were important, not only because they were against a potential conference final opponent, but because of the very nature of the games.

They were intense. They were heated. And when they were pushed by a Suns team led by one of the sport’s great instigators in Paul, they pushed back.

The Clippers didn’t look like the same Clippers who rolled over and played dead for the Denver Nuggets in that humiliating playoff series last year.

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The difference in George was noticeable.

In this bounce-back season for the All-Star, his performance in January in Phoenix was especially memorable.

George scored 39 points.

When he was fouled with seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, he stared down the player toppled over him, Cam Payne. He exchanged words with Devin Booker, as teammates held him back.

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Later, George made it sound as if he was upset by Suns players mentioning his postseason failure.

“I was talking to the ref, [Paul] jumped in and it escalated from there,” George told reporters after the game. “… There was never any altercation, there was always peace when I am on the floor, but for whatever reason, there’s a lot of chirping and people just living in the past.

“Last year was last year. I’m in a new situation, I am in a different mindset. Any of that hate stuff, you got to ask them. I don’t know where that’s coming from.”

After rolling an ankle during the Clippers’ loss Monday in New Orleans, Paul George anticipated he would be healthy enough to play Wednesday at Phoenix.

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This was a new George, one who wasn’t in denial about his reputation as a postseason choker.

“And it’s the reason I came into this year focused,” George said. “I heard all the noise and I use all that noise for motivation.”

The same motivation inspired another victory in another tense confrontation with the Suns this month. George scored 33 points.

Regardless of what kind of shape Leonard is in, the Clippers will enter the playoffs with questions about their fortitude, about their ability to make plays in important moments.

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At the moment, they have a more serious problem. And unless they solve it, unless Leonard is healthy enough to perform like an All-Star again, George and Clippers won’t even have the opportunity to prove how much they have changed.

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