Clippers defeat Suns in star-scarce Western Conference finals rematch
Half of the first quarter was over by the time Kawhi Leonard and Paul George arrived at their sideline seats in street clothes Monday, yet six minutes in, the pair of injured All-Stars had missed almost nothing.
Phoenix had made one of its first 13 shots, the Clippers three of their first nine.
This was not quite the rematch envisioned when the NBA scheduled these teams’ first meeting since June’s Western Conference finals, a game as much about everyone who was missing as all the shots that were missing.
An oral history of why the Lakers’ deal to land Chris Paul was denied by the NBA in December 2011, and a deal to send the All-Star point guard to the Clippers was approved.
With George’s strained elbow costing him a third consecutive game, and Nicolas Batum’s sprained ankle leading to a second straight absence, the Clippers were without 34% of this season’s offense. Starting guard Reggie Jackson did play, scoring 19 points — but looked increasingly labored as the game wore on, after being kneed in the thigh. He said he felt fine afterward, but walked gingerly out of a news conference nonetheless.
Phoenix coach Monty Williams would have loved if only two of his rotation players were missing: The Suns did not have Deandre Ayton, the center whose game-winning, out-of-bounds alley-oop last June haunted the Clippers’ offseason, and leading scorer Devin Booker, Frank Kaminsky and Jalen Smith also sat. In all, nearly 49% of Phoenix’s scoring was gone.
“You’re talking like we got a bunch of guys on layaway,” Williams said before tipoff, when asked whether more opportunities for role players was a silver lining of the absences. “We don’t have anybody else.”
It figured that on a night with so many hurt, it was the player who missed nearly a month to regain the strength in a knee who provided the boost the Clippers needed to win their fourth consecutive game, a 111-95 victory.
With spot-up jumpers, off-the-dribble shots and turn-around fades, Marcus Morris Sr. scored a season-high 24 points with 11 rebounds, his first double-double this season and a performance that saw him move with a fluidity that had not been apparent even at the start of December. In a fourth quarter that saw the Clippers outscore Phoenix by six, Morris scored eight points and was central to a 17-6 run that broke the game from an eight-point lead early in the fourth quarter to a blowout.
“When he feels good and everything’s right with him, great player,” Jackson said. “Definitely carried us tonight in stretches when we needed it.
“… Everything he did tonight, we needed.”
Acrimony and technical fouls were staples of last season’s meetings between these teams but with so much of the star power stripped away by injuries, this matchup carried little of any similar back-and-forth between rosters. This was a regular-season game, not a postseason feel, Morris said.
CanterCenter Ivica Zubac finished with eight points, five rebounds and four blocks, with his control of the airspace around the rim in the first half central to a double-digit lead that lasted for 15 consecutive minutes.
The outcome could be read as perhaps the expected result: a largely one-sided game tilted toward the relatively healthier Clippers. But without the bankable baseline amount of scoring and defense provided by two healthy All-Stars, or the savvy of Batum’s veteran intelligence, nothing has or will come easy this season, with Monday the latest example.
Despite owning what was once an 18 to two advantage in free throws, the Clippers struggled to make their easiest shots, then they went away altogether for the third quarter’s first 11 minutes. The Clippers (16-12) finished 16 for 23 at the line and were outscored 22-9 in points off turnovers.
Coach Tyronn Lue took confidence from 55% shooting against a defense with a strong discipline, if not healthy personnel, but “the biggest thing is just converting in transition, we have to be better,” he said.
Playing nearly 10 years to the day since being traded to the Clippers, Suns guard Chris Paul chatted with Bob Iger before tipoff, then was held scoreless after one quarter. But in the second quarter, Paul revealed again why at 36 he remains in any discussion of the league’s best guards.
Sprinting to track down a pass thrown well ahead of him on a second-quarter fast break, Paul in one motion corralled the ball and bounced it behind him with pinpoint accuracy to a cutting Mikal Bridges for a dunk. He later blew by Isaiah Hartenstein after using a screen to get the Clippers’ big man on a switch. And when he made one of his signature fall-away jumpers — it might as well be the picture that accompanies his eventual Hall of Fame bust — for his eighth point of the second quarter, he looked like the version whose 41 points closed out the Clippers in June’s conference final.
But starting with an offensive foul late in the quarter, when Paul tried dribbling between Zubac’s legs that led to a technical foul, his grip over the pace of play weakened and Phoenix (21-5) had few other answers offensively to create points. He failed to score in the second half, finishing with nine points.
“Only holding him to nine points, that’s a big accomplishment,” Lue said. “Slowing him down a little bit was huge for us.”
Cameron Johnson led Phoenix with 17 points and Bridges had 16.
“When guys go out we’re doing a good job of stepping up,” Lue said. “Marcus was huge tonight, 24 and 11. Reggie, [Terance] Mann was huge, Luke [Kennard], Zu played well, so our whole team did a good job with just chipping in and, finding the defense that we miss with PG and Nico and find the offense that we missed as well. We’ve been in these positions before and our team just finds a way to win.”
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