EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Clippers can give Suns perspective of NBA’s fleeting success

Apr 26, 2023, 12:34 AM | Updated: 1:12 am

Ty Lue Suns Clippers Game 5...

Head Coach Tyronn Lue of the LA Clippers gestures in game five of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs against the Phoenix Suns at Footprint Center on April 25, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns dodged a bullet.

Paul George wasn’t expected to play in the Los Angeles Clippers’ first-round series with a knee hyperextension. Fellow Los Angeles star Kawhi Leonard exited with a knee issue for the final three games of the Suns’ 4-1 series victory that ended Tuesday with a 136-130 closeout game at Footprint Center.

The Suns should not apologize.

It’s clear they have their work cut out for them. Devin Booker dragged them through a relatively quick series against a Los Angeles team that landed a Game 1 first punch and in the series finale shriveled a 20-point lead down to two with two minutes left.

Phoenix’s clunky first five playoff games shouldn’t overlook that the team is now 12-1 with Booker next to Kevin Durant. Nor should it lend comfort that Booker — as good as he is — was the best shooting guard, point guard and defender. That seems like a heavy burden to carry for a deep playoff run.

It’s only the beginning of what Phoenix hopes is a lengthy journey.

Two years removed from the NBA Finals, the Suns’ hot-and-cold start with their new two stars should be put in perspective next to the Clippers’ own three-year reflection exercise.

Postgame Tuesday, Ty Lue — the guy who had gotten his role players and Russell Westbrook to give the Suns the toughest five-game series you’ll probably see — closed his press conference by being asked if he expected to be back next year.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

Lue has been through it, in basketball terms and beyond.

He began his press conference thanking his front office and owner, Steve Ballmer, who has supported his franchise with the second-highest payroll in the NBA. The Clippers not only gathered Leonard and George, but put a versatile and hard-nosed roster around them.

Adding Westbrook not only spent more money but with a great amount of risk gave the Clippers a legitimate third star.

They just didn’t get to see that through — though there’s a chance Westbrook could re-sign. His career was resurrected after frustrating stints in Washington and with the Lakers, and he only had great things to say about the organization after the game Tuesday.

Westbrook was the only star to come out of the season clean.

“For me, I think the encouraging thing is with our team, with PG and Kawhi, we haven’t lost a series yet,” said Lue, looking back two years and two playoff series ago, when Leonard was lost before the Western Conference Finals against the same Phoenix team.

“It’s always in the back of your mind, ‘What if?’ It’s just been our luck the last three years.”

Personally, it was a trying year for Lue.

On a podcast in March, the well-respected head coach revealed that he missed the funerals of seven family members to remain with his struggling team that faced a losing skid.

“For me, the game’s given me everything. I never want to cheat the game,” Lue said Tuesday. “Sometimes, you can make the wrong choices in terms of not going home to some funerals for some family members and staying here.

“When times get hard, that’s when people look at their leader to see what you gonna do. Are you going to come outta this or are you going to fold and make excuses? I’m not that type of person … I can take all the heat, I can take all the criticism. I can take tough times. … That’s why they compete hard and fight for me every night.”

They sure as hell did.

Lue conjured up a physicality that didn’t show up in the numbers. Durant shot 52% for the series but failed to reach 20 field goal attempts in every game.

The Clippers allowed Torrey Craig to find a rhythm for three games. Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton struck in spurts. Phoenix’s bench got smidges of traction later in the series, but the not-too-pretty Landry Shamet shift at the tail end of Los Angeles’ wild fourth-quarter rally in Game 5 was only saved by one Josh Okogie steal.

Really the only thing Los Angeles didn’t achieve was stopping Booker, which, it’s hard to argue they could have done much better.

“We tried to blitz (trap in pick-and-rolls), we couldn’t get him blitzed,” Lue said. “We tried to fire (send two players before a screen was set), we couldn’t get our fires. He’s really elusive. Can split, can dribble around. It was just tough.”

The Clippers gave the Denver Nuggets and whatever lies beyond that — if necessary — the blueprints to bother the Suns. Easier said than done without the same roster.

Or maybe they gave the Suns the blueprints to build on their foundation that’s begun to set.

The Suns can take more than a few lessons from this series in basketball terms.

From a much wider-angle lens, they can learn this: When you have the star players, savor every moment and take advantage of their health. It’s not guaranteed, and it’s ultimately not an excuse for failure.

Maybe Monty Williams realizes that. He’s not gotten either of Booker or Durant to play fewer than 41 minutes in a single game. It’s a problem for another day.

Just ask the coach who’s lived life giving it all to his craft, the guy who keeps getting back up from every hit — from getting meme’d in 2001 from Allen Iverson’s stepover, to winning that championship, then turning to coaching and winning another NBA title in 2016, then fighting through a seemingly unbearable personal situation to support his team this year.

“Our two best players got hurt,” Lue said bluntly. “If you take Steph and Klay off Golden State, take Book and KD off this team, Greek Freak was out two games (as the Bucks went down 3-1 to the Heat)… you know, take your two best players off any team in the league and see if they can win in the playoffs against the team that’s picked to win it.”

As Lue gave that candid assessment of his situation, as the disappointment and exhaustion showed with his season over, you couldn’t help but imagine the pressure building behind that very Suns team, the one picked to win the West.

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