Short-handed Clippers are no match against Suns

One by one, the starting lineup arrived at the Arena.

There was all-star forward Paul George in a trucker hat and yellow jacket. Fellow All-Star Wing Kawhi Leonard in a blue hat. Center Ivica Zubac, in a polo. And point guard Reggie Jackson, sitting at the baseline in a sweater and backwards hat. A total of five Clippers, who played key roles in the team’s three consecutive victories on Thursday, sat out injured and the team expressed cautious optimism that all but Zubac, who suffered a bruised left knee, could return as soon as Saturday .

In their place, a lineup that had collectively issued just three possessions became the starter, a new look that raised now-familiar questions for the perpetually incomplete Clippers: On a night when the Clippers looked nothing like the team they Hoping the postseason comes amid a 111-95 loss and relying on rotations that may never be paired together again, what’s there to learn that could pay dividends when they’re all back?

The relevance of the question results from its frequency. With Leonard and point guard John Wall still not playing games on consecutive days, and the long nature of the regular season all but guarantees more shorthanded nights, Thursday won’t be the last time the Clippers fail to increase their sample size from full ones minutes and in turn learn from them.

“As a coach you always think you’re behind,” said coach Tyronn Lue, “and I think we’re really behind offensively, especially how we have to play. And until we get that continuity, until we’re all back and all healthy, if we have a sample size of two or three weeks like how we want to play offensively, I’m going to feel a lot better.

Three hours later he was optimistic “that we have enough time” to develop into the expected title contender. Making the most of this period means treating nights like Thursday with no continuity as not without classes.

Terance Mann scored 22 points with 11 rebounds and Brandon Boston Jr. scored 16 points off the bench.

Lue wanted to see if rookie big man Moussa Diabate, recently recalled from the G League, could maintain his energy while blitzing Sun’s ballhandler and switching to more experienced, smaller guards.

Lue wanted to test if Boston, the sophomore wing better known for his offense, could maintain the “defensive mindset” Lue wants to instill. Whether Jason Preston, a sophomore point guard who was also recalled from the G League, could make plays if the offense collapsed. Despite plenty of ball movement, there was little downhill attacking in a first half in which the Clippers racked up just 37 points.

But if the Clippers need diabate for spot postseason minutes, a teammate said ahead of the tip, perhaps a clear line could be drawn to a night like this when his fourth-quarter NBA training as Chris Paul, the surefire Hall the Graduate School went of Fame Point Guard,
bet on Diabate for one of his beloved midrange jumpers, only to fail Diabate’s long-armed contest.

“I thought he did a decent job,” Lue said. “His commitment and energy will always be there. Now it’s just a matter of learning more.”

Clippers guard Brandon Boston Jr. takes a shot while being pressured by Phoenix Suns center Bismack Biyombo.

Clippers guard Brandon Boston Jr. (left) goes up for a shot while under pressure from Phoenix Suns center Bismack Biyombo in the second half at Arena Thursday.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

For Phoenix coach Monty Williams, waiting means learning about your team under ideal conditions, a coach who’s always waiting. The only learning is done on the fly.

“I think every NBA season is made up of different equations that we all use to get where we need to be,” Williams said. “If you look at one or maybe two paradigms and you think, ‘Okay, we’ve got this and we’ve got this and we’re going to make it’ – you’re just going to be frustrated and disappointed. I think you have to be open-minded and just take what the season has to offer.

“You get a call at 11am or I get a text at 6, 7am and that could change my entire training or game schedule. That’s the way it is. As far as you know your team, I think you just learn about different teams along the way. And if you’re lucky enough to make the playoffs, just try to put it all together as best you can. I’m sure there have been teams in the past that have had continuity throughout the year and have probably been really good, but I’ve never experienced that.”

Having suffered a string of injuries over the past two seasons, the Clippers (17-14) know it better than almost any other team. For that reason, Lue and the Clippers want to look beyond how a player is doing in a new role and want to see a baseline of defensive combat and competency on Thursday. With a gap of up to 31 points, they reduced the lead to 14 points in the third quarter.

Competitiveness, striker Nicolas Batum said before the tip, is a skill.

“I only take Amir positively [Coffey] There’s a little bit going on in that third quarter, I think T-Man is playing well, Brandon Boston is getting some good action,” said Lue. “And then to be able to score 58 points in that second half when we only had 37 in the first half. We made points by attacking the varnish.”

The trickier question is when the Clippers will have an opportunity to work on issues that could determine their fate in the playoffs. Topping the list is improving offense when using small lineups, George said late Wednesday. The distance can be a mess, their pace uneven. Getting Leonard and George back will help them test their progress. That opportunity is coming soon – they hope. Short-handed Clippers are no match against Suns

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