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Clippers on brink of playoff elimination after loss: ‘We’ve got to be smarter’

Clippers guard Russell Westbrook celebrates after scoring on a breakaway slam dunk during a 112-100 loss to the Phoenix Suns.
Clippers guard Russell Westbrook celebrates after scoring on a dunk during a 112-100 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 4 of a first-round playoff series Saturday at Crypto.com Arena. Westbrook scored 37 points.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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The Clippers dreamed of a parade in June, their pair of All-Stars leading the franchise to a place it had never been.

They are now one loss from a first-round exit in April, pulled closer to the brink Saturday in part through an all-too-familiar scene: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George injured and watching in street clothes.

The Clippers have not lost their resolve, players and coach Tyronn Lue echoed. But after this 112-100 defeat at Crypto.com Arena, they have lost three consecutive games to trail 3-1 in this best-of-seven series. They have lost their two best defenders and offensive creators, with no timetable for either’s return, the Clippers offering no other update than Leonard and George remain “day to day.”

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Despite a valiant effort in Game 3, the Clippers fell to the Suns after Kawhi Leonard is ruled out with a knee injury. The Clippers Curse has no mercy.

April 21, 2023

At this point, so is the Clippers’ season.

“For us to get over the hump right now we almost have to do a lot, we have to almost play a perfect game,” guard Eric Gordon said. “We have to shoot the ball very well. We can’t have droughts. But the competitiveness is there. You see it.”

Point guard Russell Westbrook embodied it while scoring a game-high 37 points, finishing with six rebounds, five assists and four turnovers, a figure in constant motion while scoring 10 straight points in the fourth quarter to keep the outcome in suspense until the final minutes, until when Chris Paul answered by scoring 12 of his 19 points in the final quarter.

Kevin Durant scored 31 and Devin Booker added 30 for the Suns.

“It’s been tough but we know what we got in this locker room,” center Ivica Zubac said. “We know we’ve been fighting so many years now like this and we know we got a deep squad. We got a lot of guys who can hoop and we got a great coaching staff that’s gonna put us in a position to go out there and have a chance. We believe it. We know we can do it. We’ve been close in every game, even with missing Kawhi and PG.

“You can’t cry about it. Those are the cards we’ve been dealt and got to make the most out of it. It’s tough but it is what it is.”

What it was Saturday? A repeat of Game 3: A frenzied effort that would not outlast self-inflicted errors, as well as Phoenix’s offensive edge, including at the free-throw line, where the Suns took 21 more free throws than the Clippers on Thursday and the margin was 17 Saturday. The Clippers again left wondering how they could implement a game plan that called for physicality. One game after scoring 42, guard Norman Powell drew his fifth foul early in the fourth quarter, and he finished with 14 points on 15 shots.

Phoenix Suns forward Torrey Craig dunks over Clippers forward Nicolas Batum, center, and guard Terance Mann.
Phoenix Suns forward Torrey Craig dunks over Clippers forward Nicolas Batum, center, and guard Terance Mann in the first half Saturday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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“Free throws is the game-changer for the game,” said Gordon, who scored 10 points. “When you’re trying to be physical and they’re getting to the free-throw line, I mean, it’s just not a good combination of things.”

Westbrook hinted at the frustration after taking 20 shots inside the paint but not attempting a free throw.

In Game 5, on Tuesday, he promised to “keep attacking the basket, and man, hopefully, you know, we get rewarded for doing that. But you know, we’ll see.”

Since Thursday’s loss in Game 3, the Clippers described a path to victory with ultra-slim margins. It would require limiting turnovers and bad fouls and use while utilizing what was supposed to be a season-long strength, their depth, to “run them out the gym,” backup guard Bones Hyland said Friday. In the first three games Booker had averaged 44 minutes, Durant more than 43 and Paul 39.

Yet after building an 11-point lead 10 minutes before halftime, the Clippers gave it all back in five minutes, committing five turnovers in the stretch. Eight of their 13 turnovers were committed in the quarter, and virtually all were of the live-ball variety — a basketball cardinal sin.

LOS ANGELES, CA -APRIL 22, 2023: LA Clippers guard Russell Westbrook (0) dunks over Phoenix Suns.
Clippers guard Russell Westbrook dunks over Phoenix Suns forward Torrey Craig on Saturday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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Clippers center Ivica Zubac beats Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker to a loose ball.
Clippers center Ivica Zubac beats Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker to a loose ball in the second half Saturday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The Suns had a second wind.

“We are scrapping and we are competing, but then we’ve got to be smarter,” Lue said. “Just fouling in the bonus and the penalty, taking care of the basketball, good shot selection.”

The Clippers have tried tilting the math of the series by firing far more three-pointers. They attempted 15 more three-pointers than the Suns on Saturday, but made only three more.

They tried a change to the starting lineup, replacing Nicolas Batum — who had shot just one-for-8 this series — with Marcus Morris Sr., who had not started, and played once, since March 25. Lue did not delve into his reasoning, saying only that he “just decided to do it.” After Morris shot three for 13, Batum 0 for one and Robert Covington 0 for two, Lue has the same tricky problem to solve for Tuesday’s Game 5 — how to spark meaningful production from his power forwards?

With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George injured, Russell Westbrook is helping the Clippers look respectable in dire playoff circumstances against the Suns.

April 22, 2023

One way or another, the Clippers will be returning Wednesday to Los Angeles.

They have one more game to decide whether that trip home will come to play a sixth game in their first-round series, or to clean out their lockers for good.

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