EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Resting Suns fall late in bizarre game to set Clippers as playoff opponent

Apr 9, 2023, 5:05 PM

PHOENIX — A last day of the regular season on Easter Sunday filled with Game 82’s tipping off at the same time in teams’ respective conferences assuredly had some formulaic results in the works.

Teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers had everything to play for, with a win increasing their chances of staying out of the play-in tournament and their opposition having the spirit of most regular-season finales.

While the Warriors cruised in Portland and Los Angeles had to battle with Utah to get wins, the Clippers were practically pulling teeth to beat a resting Suns squad, 119-114.

Phoenix, locked in the fourth seed, was without Deandre Ayton (rest), Bismack Biyombo (right knee bone contusion), Devin Booker (rest), Kevin Durant (left ankle injury management), Chris Paul (rest), Cam Payne (low back soreness) and T.J. Warren (non-COVID illness) while the Clippers were missing the injured Paul George (right knee sprain) and Marcus Morris Sr. (low back spasms).

The oddity inside the game was that if the Clippers won, they would face the Suns in the first round, an arduous task. There was an outcome where, if they lost and so did the New Orleans Pelicans, they’d draw a more favorable matchup in the Sacramento Kings as the sixth seed.

The games were going on simultaneously, though, making it impossible for Los Angeles to pull any tomfoolery like it has in the past on Game 82.

There was also the motivation for the Suns to lose, because beating the Clippers with a Warriors win (they were up 31 at halftime) would mean Suns-Warriors in the first round. But we know this Suns group, and those lads are going to play hard no matter what.

Play hard, they did.

Veteran-laden rosters like the Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers have the tendency more than others to sleepwalk through certain games, especially with a matinee tip-off. But even with the play-in potentially looming for the Clippers and Phoenix just showing how much energy it will put into this type of game like Friday’s defeat to the Lakers, that did not encourage the Clippers to put forth an early effort that represented anything close to desperation.

The Suns led after one quarter 28-19. Phoenix was able to cruise through its usual motions on offense without much resistance, in a way that felt like a low-intensity scrimmage. That is always a dangerous game, essentially gifting NBA players a flow and rhythm from the initial proceedings.

Los Angeles found a little bit of something in the second quarter but still trailed by five at halftime. Thanks to a 31-point halftime lead for the Warriors in Portland, both teams would get the information at that break that a Clippers win would indeed result in Golden State landing the fifth seed. More importantly for L.A., a loss would result in a play-in spot of seventh thanks to the Pelicans’ lead at the time in New Orleans.

At one point in the second quarter, play was paused because there was a worry about one of the speakers hanging above the court from the rafters. In just a few minutes, however, it was brought down and one speaker was partially removed before it took back its place in the sky and play resumed. Shoutout to the Suns’ arena staff for the swift work there.

We saw the expected Clippers response to start the third quarter, a 9-0 run to lead by four, only to fail sustaining it and trailing by seven only a few minutes later. Somewhere in this quarter, Los Angeles arose and started playing downhill, physical basketball to get to the rim. The problem was they kept giving up 3s on the other side of the court. Phoenix was still up four heading into the final quarter.

During that break, Clippers reserves Bones Hyland and Mason Plumlee had to be separated on the bench.

Torrey Craig did not play in the second half and Landry Shamet only played one final shift in it. Josh Okogie would have presumably stayed on the bench as well had Ish Wainright not picked up a knock that put Okogie back in the game. Phoenix entered the game with only nine available players.

The game stayed wonky and was still tied with 6:45 to go before a Russell Westbrook tip dunk two minutes later put the Clippers up six. They still could not consistently organize defensively but then Kawhi Leonard scored Los Angeles’ next eight points and a lay-in at 19 ticks remaining was the conclusion to lock in a rematch of the 2021 Western Conference Finals.

A laugh was had from the basketball gods, because just a few minutes later after the buzzer sounded, the Pelicans lost. So, yes, Los Angeles would have gotten its preferred first round opponent if it would have fallen in the same style of shenanigans they have done in previous seasons.

This is even more crazy to think about in hindsight with the speaker snafu. If that would have been a more lengthy delay, Los Angeles would have known the Pelicans lost and perhaps pulled all its key players for the closing stages in an attempt to also lose and get the sixth seed.

Alas. In the wise words of Vernon Dursley, “Justice.”

Saben Lee played a game-high 44 minutes for Phoenix. He had a career-high 25 points and nine assists, plus there rebounds, two steals and a block, a moment he deserved. When the Suns were down a few ball-handlers in January, Lee was brought in on a 10-day deal and played really well for a month in a key reserve role. He rightfully earned a second 10-day deal before the Suns waived two-way guard Duane Washington Jr. so Lee could take that other two-way spot.

“He’s been huge for us,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of Lee pregame. “Always ready. Without that segment we had with him earlier this year, we might not be in this position.”

With Lee on a two-way deal, he cannot play in the postseason, but he can still practice and travel with the team. You might remember this is the reason why Phoenix signed Wainright prior to last year’s playoffs.

Norman Powell scored a game-high 29 points for the Clippers. He was the guy really setting the tone in the second half to slash toward the basket and a steal in transition he earned by sprinting back on defense with two minutes left in a four-point game was the biggest play of the afternoon.

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