Clippers’ Title Hopes Have Been Called Into Question After a Humiliating Loss to the Suns

Before Sunday night’s game at Arena, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George walked toward midcourt. One of them was quiet, while the other was about to say something. Before the Clippers’ home opener, they were asked to talk to the crowd. George kept his speech short and Leonard nodded along.

“Why not us?” George said. “Let’s go get it this year.” The Clippers’ 112-95 loss to Phoenix on Sunday, which was their second game in two nights, showed that they need to answer a few questions before they can even think about winning a championship.

Who Will Start as Point Guard?

Reggie Jackson started his third straight game, but John Wall replaced him with the starters at the start of the third quarter. Wall played almost as many minutes as Jackson.

How often will the Clippers switch between starting center Ivica Zubac and small lineups to replace him? Phoenix built a 20-point lead in the first half by outrebounding the Clippers. They did this by using traditional big men the whole game. Their starting player, Deandre Ayton, once grabbed a rebound out of the air over Jackson’s head.

Was this a case of quick-turnaround fatigue, or did the Clippers not listen to coach Tyronn Lue’s offseason message that no matter how talented they are, they won’t be able to use it to its fullest unless they give it their all?

“You can’t start games like that, especially when you want to start with a defensive mindset,” Lue said. “No excuses with the back to back. Everybody plays back to backs. We’ve just got to be better.”

“Phoenix is a better team than we are right now. But we’ll be better though.” The Clippers were blown out in the first half, which was mostly slow. Each time the Clippers tried to come back in the second half, Phoenix quickly stopped them, led by Devin Booker’s 35 points and 16 second-chance points.

George said that both the defence on the ball and the defence away from the ball were bad. George said, “We didn’t help each other.” Marcus Morris Sr. had the most points on his team, with 22.

Leonard played 21 minutes in his second game of the season. He scored 11 points, grabbed six rebounds, gave out two assists and forced his way to the free throw line, where he scored seven more points. George played 34 minutes and scored 16 points the night after he scored 40 points in 39 minutes to help beat Sacramento.

Jackson didn’t score because he missed all five shots he took in 24 minutes. He did, however, give out two assists. He started the second half sitting on the baseline in his warmups while Wall, George and Leonard took over as the lead ballhandlers.

Lue said before the game that Wall’s most important contribution while he was resting in Sacramento the night before was his advice to starting guard Norman Powell, who had only made three of 18 shots so far this season.

“Norm was frustrated with himself, but [Wall] was talking to Norm and just, ‘Keep playing, keep going,’” Lue said before tipoff. “If you’re taking the right shots and you’re being aggressive, it’s OK. You’re not going to make every shot.”

Lue also tried to back up what Wall said by telling Powell a joke. “You know, me and Michael Jordan didn’t make every shot either, you know?” Lue spoke to Powell. “And we’re two of the best to ever do it, so you got to keep going, you know?”

Powell made four of nine shots while following Lue’s advice to stay aggressive. Sometimes this worked, like when he made layups or let Leonard score an easy dunk in the third quarter, but sometimes it didn’t, like when he tried to pass to Zubac in traffic but it was blocked.

Lue hasn’t had to tell Wall to push harder. The Clippers fell behind 11-0 and didn’t score for more than three minutes to start the game. When Wall came in eight minutes into the first quarter, Booker had outscored the Clippers by himself, 14-10, and Phoenix’s lead had grown to 14.

Wall gave the story a burst that was missing. His first pass to George was a perfect pass for a dunk. Wall’s first drive was a full-court sprint where he tried but failed, to bring the ball all the way around his waist. Wall wasn’t perfect; he only made one of five free throws, but he scored 17 points by making seven of 12 shots.

Leonard played for seven minutes in the third quarter. This was similar to how he was used in his first game, where he played for about seven minutes at the end of the first half and the first half of the third quarter to save time for the last few minutes.

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