Clippers lack depth in Game 2 loss to Suns

The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina writes the Clippers missed Paul George on Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook's big night.

The simple reason for the LA Clippers finishing with a 123-109 Game 2 loss to the Phoenix Suns? It seems impossible to overcome the Suns’ star power when the Clippers are without one of theirs.

The more thorough explanation for the Clippers’ setback? Even with Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook posting All-Star performances, the Clippers lacked enough depth to compensate for Paul George’s ongoing absence.

That does not mean the Clippers have no chance of winning this series against Phoenix. The Suns simply tied the series at 1-1 to ensure this first-round matchup lasts at least five games. The Clippers still have home-court advantage. They also have a strong coach in Tyronn Lue, who thrives on making adjustments. But when the Clippers host the Suns for Game 3 on Thursday (7 pm PT, TNT) at Arena, they will have to understand they have little margin for error against the Suns’ superior talent.

Not surprising it wasn’t enough for Leonard to finish with 31 points while shooting 11-for-20 from the field along with eight rebounds and seven assists. Not surprising it wasn’t enough for Westbrook to add 28 points on a 9-for-16 clip along with five rebounds and five assists. Not with the Suns having cheat codes in Devin Booker (38 points) and Kevin Durant (25 points). Not with Chris Paul being a dependable playmaker (16 points, eight assists) and Deandre Ayton being a dominant big man (14 points on 7-for-10 shooting).

But the Clippers won Game 1 despite missing George, who is expected to be sidelined for the entire first round after missing the final nine regular-season games with a sprained right knee. The keys? Leonard and Westbrook made winning plays. So did the Clippers’ other role players. And they also outcompeted the Suns on the boards and for loose balls.

In Game 2? The Clippers initially approached a similar script. Leonard put on an offensive scoring clinic that entailed pump faking Durant before setting up Terance Mann for an open shot and sinking contested mid-range jumpers at ease. Leonard also became the primary defender on Durant and gave him little room to operate, including when he ripped the ball away before finishing with a fast-break dunk. In the first half, the Clippers also posted eight offensive rebounds and 11 second-chance points.

Eventually, though, the Suns’ superior talent prevailed. Phoenix erased the Clippers’ 13-point lead by closing the first half on an 11-2 run. The Suns then opened the second half with a tightened rotation so that they could lean on their top-heavy talent to overcome their lack of depth. The tactic worked. The Suns opened the second half with six unanswered points. Then, Booker scored 25 of his 38 points.

While Leonard and Westbrook still competed, the Clippers received little help elsewhere. Clippers forward Norman Powell (4-for-11) and Bones Hyland (2-for-7) shot inefficiently. Clippers forward Nicolas Batum went scoreless while missing all four of his shot attempts. And Clippers center Ivica Zubac had eight points on only a 2-for-7 clip, while not doing enough to limit Ayton’s presence. Technically, the Clippers outscored the Suns’ bench (30-13). But that’s because Phoenix don’t have much behind their stars. The Clippers have plenty, but didn’t maximize what they had.

Perhaps a few adjustments await. Maybe the Clippers dare the Suns to beat them on drives and at the free-throw line. Maybe the Clippers ditch the drop coverage and allow Phoenix to take so many open jumpers. Maybe Lue finds a better mix between his small and big lineups.

Nonetheless, the Clippers only survive this series without George if Leonard, Westbrook and their supporting cast play at their absolute best. The Clippers saw Leonard and Westbrook fulfill that job description. Now it’s on everyone else to do the same.

Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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