PHOENIX – Only one week separates the Phoenix Suns from their 2023 postseason run. The good thing for them is they had extra time to prepare.
The Suns already wrapped up the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference before their final regular-season game against the Los Angeles Clippers. Phoenix was able to sit starters Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant against the Los Angeles Lakers Friday and did so again Sunday versus the Clippers in its final home game of the season.
Also without three top bench players (guard Cameron Payne, center Bismack Biyombo and forward T.J. Warren), Phoenix was perceived to be at a big disadvantage for the second straight game against an opponent that needed a win to improve its playoff positioning. Sunday’s contest was meaningful for LA, as a win for the Clippers would secure them the No. 5 seed to face the Suns in the first round of the playoffs.
That happened, as the Clippers defeated the shorthanded yet valiant Suns 119-114 in front of 17,071 fans at Footprint Center, which is the 67th consecutive sellout at the arena.
Phoenix and Los Angeles will face each other in the first round of the postseason next weekend after the NBA’s play-in tournament concludes. The Suns avoided a first-round matchup with the defending champion Golden State Warriors, who would have been the No. 5 seed if Phoenix won after they blew out the Portland Trail Blazers Sunday.
Even though they lost, the Suns were incredibly impressive without key players for the second straight game.
“I thought our guys played hard all night long,” Suns coach Monty Williams said.
“You learn a lot in games like that.”
After Phoenix gave up the first basket of the game, it did not trail until the third quarter, when the Clippers went on an 11-0 run to take a 59-53 lead with 9:24 left.
The valiant Suns went on a 28-12 run after that to take a 10-point lead, but an 11-5 spurt from the Clippers to finish the third quarter set up a surprisingly exciting finish.
Los Angeles took a 92-91 lead in the fourth quarter, its first lead of the period, with a jumper from backup guard Terrance Mann. The Suns fought back and took a 98-96 lead with a shot from starting guard Saben Lee with 7:42 left.
That was the last time Phoenix was in front. The Clippers took the lead after two free throws from starting forward Kawhi Leonard and a shot from backup guard Norman Powell and never trailed for the rest of the game.
The Suns never folded, however. They kept the game within a two-possession score for much of the last seven minutes and even trailed by just three, 117-114.
However, Leonard effectively put the game away with a layup that gave the Clippers a 119-114 lead with 19.1 seconds left. Suns starting guard Saben Lee missed a dunk and wing Josh Okogie missed a follow-up shot in the paint, which led to the Clippers securing a close win.
Los Angeles was favored by 12.5 points by DraftKings entering Sunday’s game, but the Suns put pressure on Los Angeles from the beginning.
They built a lead as large as 10 points in the first quarter, as the team stood out with its energy even though it shot just 40.7 percent from the field.
With an opportunity to step up, backup center Jock Landale thrived with 11 first-quarter points. He finished with 15 points and eight rebounds as the team benefited from his ability to score in multiple ways as a big, something it does not have with Biyombo.
“Jock in the pocket and around the basket is one of our better performers,” Williams said. “He’s not on the level of [Ayton], but he can score in that environment.”
The Suns did not take their foot off the gas in the second quarter. The Clippers had a chance to take control after a mid-range shot from Leonard cut their deficit to 41-40 with 4:11 left in the period, but Phoenix did not fall down.
The Suns went on an 8-0 run and held a 53-48 lead at halftime.
Both teams had an opportunity to see the Warriors were well on their way to a blowout win over the Trail Blazers Sunday at halftime. Neither team is perceived to be an easy matchup for the Suns, but an 11-0 run from the Clippers at the start of the second half could have been an indication Phoenix was seeking a perceived more advantageous matchup against Los Angeles.
If that was ever a notion, it was quickly dismissed. Phoenix fought back again in the third quarter and went on a 28-12 run over a 7:24 span to take an 81-71 lead with 1:48 left in the quarter.
The Suns had six players in double figures in scoring, led by Lee with a career-high 25 points with nine assists.
“Saben is a guy that — I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’d throw him out there in a playoff game — but I wouldn’t be afraid,” Williams said, “because of his ability to get to the basket and his toughness.”
Phoenix only had one starter who did not score in double figures (forward Ish Wainwright).
Leonard and starting guard Russell Westbrook each had 25 points to lead the Clippers.
The Suns will have home court advantage in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Clippers. The NBA play-in will take place for the Western and Eastern Conference this week in which the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds are decided between a series of games between the No. 7-10 seeds in each conference.
Game 1 between the Suns and Clippers will be Sunday, April 16, Phoenix’s communication staff confirmed after the contest.