The Clippers had waited 51 years for Sunday.
But four weeks into this postseason, and one game into their first conference finals, they’re still waiting to take control of a series from its start.
On tired legs, playing a rotation more reliant on role players than ever because of knee injuries to Kawhi Leonard and, suddenly, Marcus Morris too, the Clippers lost the first game for the third consecutive round. The 120-114 loss at Phoenix was not over, despite all the circumstances working against them, until Nicolas Batum missed a three-pointer with five seconds to play, and the Suns’ Devin Booker grabbed the rebound and flexed.
He also screamed, but it was lost amid the din of a sold-out Phoenix Suns Arena, where fans waving orange towels finally could be assured of relief.
Booker, who helped the Suns end a 10-year playoff drought, produced his first triple-double — 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists — on the biggest stage of his career to move them within three wins of their first NBA Finals since 1993. He hugged teammate Deandre Ayton when they completed interviews on the court after helping hold off the Clippers despite the absence of point guard Chris Paul, the veteran whose return is unclear as he remains in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
Ayton finished with 20 points and nine rebounds, his inside presence impossible for the Clippers to blunt forever on a night when they started with a small-ball lineup but were forced by injuries to play with a traditional center almost the entire second half.
Less than two days after exorcising franchise and personal demons, Paul “Playoff P” George was forced to become 36-Hour Layoff P, scoring 34 points while the Clippers had to manage his rest carefully as he tries to carry the team without Leonard.
Coach Tyronn Lue called the quick turnaround, with only one full day between rounds for a second consecutive series, “crazy” on Saturday, when the team’s workload was limited to film review and a 20-minute walkthrough in their hotel ballroom. It was why he’d called his team’s response during the opening six minutes vital, to gauge their legs and poise against the well-rested Suns, who closed out their last series with Denver one week ago.
Instead they played as though it were a continuation of Friday’s series-ending victory in Los Angeles, leading Phoenix behind George’s mixture of three-pointers and drives that targeted Booker on defense to tire out the Suns’ leading scorer as much as possible.
When the second quarter opened, Lue’s pregame promise of digging deep into his roster to buy his key players rest came true when he played a high-risk, high-reward lineup featuring little-used Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins. The Clippers needed to merely survive their minutes. Instead, they thrived. Within 17 seconds, Cousins had knocked over Phoenix’s Dario Saric with a dunk and stared the defender down. Cousins later made a three-pointer.
In five minutes they outscored Phoenix by two, with Cousins responsible for a remarkable 11 points — but once Ayton returned at center, so did Phoenix’s advantage. George’s six-minute breather was over as Phoenix scored 10 unanswered points to lead by five.
Ayton scored 10 points in the quarter, four from lobs caught above the rim and slammed within the final minutes that brought fans to their feet. Anyone not already standing leaped with 2.2 seconds to play before halftime when Booker ended his taxing half with a fade-away jumper for a three-point lead.
Phoenix made the shots it wanted in the first half — 11 at the rim, making 10. The Clippers took seven corner three-pointers but made only one.
When the Clippers emerged for the third quarter, center Ivica Zubac was in the lineup and Morris, wearing a compression sleeve covering most of his left leg, was stretching gingerly on the baseline to work on knee pain he’d felt in the first half.
But the Clippers had been through this next-man-up drill before. Two days earlier, it was Terance Mann helping end Utah’s season with a career-high 39 points.
On Sunday he managed just nine, though George and Reggie Jackson picked up the scoring slack, with George scoring 16 and Jackson 11 in the third quarter. A 16-2 run by the Clippers propelled them to a six-point lead with three minutes left in the quarter — but it wasn’t enough to hold off Booker, who used screens by Ayton like a scalpel, repeatedly dribbling into the defense and scoring 16 consecutive points.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.