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Shorthanded Clippers rally but can’t keep pace with star-studded Suns

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker drives past Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe.
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker drives past Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe during the first half of the Clippers’ loss Thursday.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)
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This Clippers season has been so disjointed, its roster so fragmented by injuries and COVID-related absences, that spotting meaningful trends has felt arduous even for those within the franchise, like piecing together shredded strips of a once-whole paper to see the bigger picture.

But there amid the night-to-night changes to the team’s injury report, the length injury to leading scorer Paul George and the 16 different starting lineups, point guard Reggie Jackson said earlier this week that he’d spotted a consistency of intent and effort. The team could cycle through as many 10-day contracts as it needed, he said Wednesday, but he predicted a don’t-quit mantra would somehow persist.

It was all there again Thursday — a comeback from 19 down in the first half to just four with five minutes to play at Footprint Center sending murmurs of frustration throughout an arena that had seen a short-handed Clippers roster become difficult to finish off only six months earlier, in the Western Conference finals.

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Clippers point guard Xavier Moon entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols and will not play Thursday against the Phoenix Suns.

Phoenix shot just 19% in the third quarter, held to 19 points, allowing the Clippers a way back into game they had appeared to lose grasp of in the second quarter, which Phoenix opened with a 17-2 run to lead comfortably at halftime.

But eventually the difference in one of the West’s elite contenders and a team holding onto its playoff life emerged in a 106-89 Suns win.

The Clippers still have fight. But Phoenix still has Chris Paul.

One of basketball’s best closers scored five points, with five assists and four rebounds without committing a turnover in 10 fourth-quarter minutes to bury the Clippers comeback hopes and plunge their record below .500, at 19-20. Paul finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists to close out what the Suns’ role players had started.

With center Deandre Ayton out, Cam Johnson scored 24 points and Jalen Smith added 19 points and 14 rebounds.

Paul’s assists to Johnson and Smith for cutting dunks on consecutive possessions pushed the lead to 11 with 3:37 to play, continuing the troubling dance that ultimately doomed the Clippers, who were unable to fully dig themselves out of the hole they’d created in the second quarter.

Their deficit was cut to 12 but was back to 17 two minutes later in the third. Later in the quarter the margin was again just 12 courtesy of a Marcus Morris Sr. three-pointer — but 60 seconds later, they were down 16. When Morris made another three with 2:45 to go in the third to trim Phoenix’s lead to nine, 73-64, Brandon Boston Jr. then made a jumper on the other end to continue a 12-2 run. The Suns scored four points in the last four minutes of the third. All that was undone when Phoenix finished the game on a 19-6 run in the final five minutes.

Morris scored a team-high 26 for the Clippers, who turned a blowout into a suspenseful second half by holding Phoenix to just four-of-20 outside shooting after halftime, including one of 11 in the third quarter. Their comeback was supercharged by lineups including Justise Winslow at center and Amir Coffey at forward, two options who otherwise wouldn’t have such a prominent role if the team was at full strength. Coffey had eight points and Winslow had four rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals.

Jackson said the trouble “starts with me” and his five turnovers, but guard Eric Bledsoe added four, and that starting backcourt combined to make nine of their 28 shots. Even with the 7-foot Ayton sidelined, the Clippers were still outrebounded by 14, continuing one of the few obvious trends of their season. Short of growing overnight, the Clippers have to be tougher.

“I know teams are a little bigger but we can do a better job of hitting first and bringing that physicality,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We just don’t do it every single night with our guards.”

Finally out of protocol, Tyronn Lue will coach the Clippers on Thursday against the Phoenix Suns.

Nicolas Batum scored one point with seven rebounds in his first game since a sprained ankle cost him five games.

The forward is on a pitch count, playing only 18 minutes, until further notice and he missed his first three shots, but his return enabled something so rarely seen this season — his pairing with forward Morris.

“Nico doesn’t have any rhythm,” Lue said, “but it was good to see him fly around.”

Those two were a staple of some of the Clippers’ most effective postseason lineups but injuries and COVID-related absences had limited them to just 15 minutes together this season. Lue wants to build on that pairing again — should their availability allow for it — for Thursday’s rare moment to become something resembling a trend.


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