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Despite dramatic rally, Clippers cave to Suns in season-ending loss

Clippers guard Norman Powell hangs in the air as he takes a shot between Phoenix's Deandre Ayton, right, and Chris Paul.
Clippers guard Norman Powell splits the defense of Suns center Deandre Ayton and guard Chris Paul for a shot in the lane during Game 5 on Tuesday night in Phoenix.
(Matt York / Associated Press)
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Heads down, walking past fans in free orange T-shirts, the Clippers retreated to their locker room underneath Footprint Center’s stands knowing precisely where their season ended.

Then they boarded a short flight to Los Angeles to begin a long offseason reserved for pinpointing how, exactly, this season’s championship aspirations went awry long before Tuesday’s final game.

With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George healthy, the Clippers began this season with hopes of establishing a franchise first: advancing to their first Finals and claiming their first championship. But with sprained right knees sidelining George the entire postseason and Leonard the last three games of this series, the Clippers could not advance past even the first round, losing to the Phoenix Suns 136-130 in Game 5.

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Injuries were at the root of the Clippers’ undoing again, coach Tyronn Lue said, the element that will keep him wondering when he retreats to his house in Las Vegas.

Clippers star Paul George, who has not played since late March, said Tuesday in Phoenix that his rehab from injury is a six-week process.

April 25, 2023

“It’s always in the back of your mind, ‘what if?’” Lue said.

But even when Leonard and George were healthy and playing at all-NBA levels, the Clippers had difficulty finding a rhythm. Their defense cratered in late December, their offense endured droughts and they exited February’s All-Star break losers of five straight games.

Frustration built, and since January many around the NBA watched Lue’s temperament carefully, speculating he might walk away with years left on his contract in part over the unpredictability of his players’ availability. Yet asked if he expected to be the coach next season, Lue answered, “Yes, sir.”

Lue appeared emotional after the game while describing the long season, and moved by his team’s fourth-quarter display of toughness. The Clippers’ resolve was unquestioned — but so were their limitations while unable to ultimately match Phoenix’s combination of star power and shot-making.

Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant is fouled by Clippers guard Eric Gordon.
Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant is fouled by Clippers guard Eric Gordon (10) during the second half of Game 5 of a first-round NBA playoff series on Tuesday in Phoenix.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

Led by Norman Powell, who finished with a team-high 27 points, the Clippers had a nine-point advantage at halftime but during the final 8 minutes 8 seconds of the third quarter, the Suns made 14 of 19 shots while the Clippers shot four for 15 and were outscored by 25.

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Phoenix became only the fourth team in NBA history to score 50 points in a playoff quarter. Put another way: Suns guard Devin Booker outscored the Clippers all by himself in the quarter 25-24.

“It,” teammate Kevin Durant said, “was spiritual.”

Durant, who scored 31 points, combined with Booker to make 29 of 46 shots to bury the Clippers by as many as 20 in the fourth quarter. Instead of folding, the Clippers fought to pull within 130-128 with just more than two minutes remaining.

It was their gutsiest effort of the season, sparked again by Russell Westbrook’s unrelenting aggression.

“Bringing Russ here really, really saved our season as far as making the playoffs, having this run we had,” Lue said.

But the rally was undone for a final time, by a missed Westbrook layup with a chance to tie, a missed three-pointer by an open Nicolas Batum that would have given the Clippers the lead with 1:18 to play, and turnovers by Powell with 1:02 left and Westbrook with 51 seconds to play.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue and Suns forward Ish Wainright have a brotherly relationship and ties to Missouri spanning 15 years.

April 25, 2023

Booker scored 47 points for the Suns, who advance to face Denver.

“We had no answer for him,” Lue said.

Nor for the injuries that sidelined George and/or Leonard at the end of three consecutive seasons. Before the game George said he still is “very optimistic that our time will come.”

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A long offseason now begins to answer when that time will come, if ever.

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