Story by Zach Alvira
It’s uncertain what fans expected from the Phoenix Suns’ regular-season finale against the Los Angeles Clippers.
But it surely couldn’t have been what transpired throughout the game Sunday afternoon.
Fans were wearing rabbit ears and hopped like them on the video board in honor of Easter. There was a short delay for a speaker that had come loose high above the court, forcing officials to evacuate fans from nearby seats out of precaution.
There was a near scuffle between Clippers guard Russell Westbrook and Suns guard Saben Lee, and a real one between Clippers forward Mason Plumlee and guard Bones Hyland on the bench during a timeout.
It was also a game that felt dominated by the Suns throughout, yet it was the Clippers that came away with a 119-114 win to wrap up the regular season and set up a first-round playoff matchup between the two teams beginning Sunday, April 16 at Footprint Center.
“It’s going to be a good series,” Lee said, adding that he will enjoy his role in the playoffs even if it means diminished playing time. “Just supporting the guys any way I can. Being talkative … helping any way I can.”
With the No. 4 seed in the West already locked up, Phoenix rested its ‘big four’ of Devin
Booker, Kevin Durant, DeAndre Ayton and Chris Paul for a second consecutive game. Cam Payne and Bismack Biyombo were also out with lingering injuries.
That left it up to most of the Suns’ bench players to go head-to-head with a Clippers team that remains without star guard Paul George.
Lee, a product of Corona del Sol High School, led all Suns’ scorers with 25 points. He also nearly came away with what surely would’ve been the poster dunk of the season on Westbrook –perhaps an extension of the argument the two had earlier in the game after a hard foul by Lee that was deemed a Flagrant 1.
Jock Landale (15), Landry Shamet (14) and Josh Okogie (13) all finished in double figures. Terrance Ross also contributed 13 points off the bench alongside Darius Bazley, who played a season-high 26 minutes with Biyombo out, scoring 16 points.
“I like the fact we got after it today and played, from a grit standpoint, we played to the Suns’ standards,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “When you see guys playing the way they did tonight, it makes you somewhat proud of your program.”
The Suns got off to a fast start against the Clippers. They attacked the rim early on with Landale, who hit his first three shots of the game — all from within a few feet of the basket.
Phoenix didn’t stop there. They capped off the first quarter with a majority of their 28 points coming from inside the paint. They outscored the Clippers in the lane 16-4.
The Clippers had no answer for the Suns defensively in the first half. Phoenix was physical driving to the lane and was knocking down 3 pointers to answer those made by the Clippers.
Phoenix, at times, extended its lead to eight or more points throughout the first half and into the second. But even after a cold start the Clippers found a rhythm on offense and began to play with some tenacity on defense.
“We played decent defense in the second half, but it got away from us in the fourth,” Williams said. “They got progressively better over the course of the game as far as scoring the ball. But I thought our guys played hard all night long.”
The Clippers opened the second half on a 9-0 run. But the Suns regrouped. It wan’t until the fourth quarter the Clippers managed to start pulling away thanks to Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard, who had just two points in the first 16 minutes of the game. Both finished with 25 points each to match Lee for the game high.
In the waning minutes, it was Leonard who put the game officially out of reach for the Suns with a midrange jumper.
“I was trying to win today,” Lee said when asked about the importance of the game for the Suns with a playoff spot locked in. “That was my mindset going into the game.”
The win by the Clippers locks them into the 5-seed in the West for the playoffs. The Golden State Warriors, who beat Portland by 56 points Sunday after scoring an all-time high 55 points in the first quarter, remain at No. 6.
Williams said he was able to learn more about his team and specifically the role players during the Suns’ final two games of the regular season. Whether drastic changes would be made to the rotation after performances from the likes of Lee and Bazley, however, may not be likely.
But Williams said he now knows he can be confident in every player’s ability to deliver if called upon in the playoffs. That’ll be key in a series against a team that still is unaware if, or when, George may make his return from a knee injury.
“We understand how they play. They look for matchups and you have to be able to have a great defensive shift against those matchups,” Williams said. “The more you score against them, you can get back and set your defense.”
“We think we can be productive against any team.”
The Suns’ first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers will tip off Sunday, April 16 at Footprint Center in Phoenix. Time is TBD.