LOS ANGELES — The Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers share a commonality of scar tissue that never seems to go away and at a moment’s notice will flare up and send all types of bad memories from the not-too-distant past.
For the Suns, it’s their recent postseason failures. It’s much more complicated for the Clippers, putting together perfect visions with imperfect parts that always seem to go flat at inopportune times.
Kawhi Leonard was in street clothes for Game 3 of the first-round series Thursday. It would’ve been his first home playoff game since 2021 when he tore his ACL against Utah, a triumphant return in a way back to the stage that matters the most — and a validation of the long play he’s taken with recovering from injuries.
But his right knee flared up sometime in the first two games, causing him to miss Game 3’s 129-124 Phoenix win at Crypto.com Arena. Those first two games were stellar, reminding the basketball world he can transform into yet another version of himself that rivals or even conquers basketball’s best individual performers.
Hours before tipoff, when the Clippers had thoughts of putting some real doubt into the minds of the favored Suns, word came down Leonard would be unavailable for Thursday’s game. It isn’t the dreaded “load management,” but it put a damper on what could’ve been the best basketball series for anybody’s money.
“It’s very deflating,” Clippers coach Ty Lue said. “I’m thinking mostly of Kawhi. He hasn’t missed a rehab session, eats right, eats clean. Works extremely hard to get to this point. And then you have something like this happen. I feel bad for him.
“Our guys have been through a lot this year and the last two years, just for us to compete to the point to make the playoffs and feel pretty good, outside of having PG [Paul George]. It’s a blow.”
The Clippers said all the optimistic things concerning Leonard, hopeful he could return in this series. With Game 4 being early Saturday afternoon and the series going every other day the rest of the way, it’s anyone’s guess if Leonard will return — especially considering the conservative way he’s approached his injuries in San Antonio, Toronto and now with the Clippers.
Lue said he found out Leonard wouldn’t be available right before the morning shootaround, giving him a precious few hours to call audibles on his game plan. Leonard’s steadiness allowed Lue to mix and match coverages and lineups, and the opposing Suns openly admitted to being kept on their toes because of Lue’s mad scientist approach.
After bemoaning how enticingly entertaining this series would be if Leonard and George were healthy, consider Lue throwing even more at Durant to try to slow him down, all while knowing Booker would be given more real estate to cook against defenders big and small.
Booker torched the Clippers for a second straight contest with 45 points in 44 minutes, helping pour a little cold water on an energized Clippers team that hung around a lot longer than their top-level talent said they should’ve.
“I encourage them to double-team him [Durant]. It’s my turn to make them pay,” Booker said. “You can’t leave him, he draws a lot of attention. A lot of buckets I scored, I went right to him afterward and said, ‘You opened that up for me.’ ”
Durant, who scored 28 points with 6 rebounds and 5 assists, deflected credit for Booker’s big night, simply calling his teammate’s performance “all time.” Booker is one of the league’s most powerful scorers with an endless array of shots and angles, and seemingly a reservoir of energy that allowed him to play 44 minutes a game this series without looking fatigued.
“He ran back and told me I created that [layup], I probably didn’t,” Durant said. “They couldn’t help as aggressively when I was coming off that screen. He got the whole defense with their back turned, but that’s nothing for him.”
The Suns are top heavy, leaning so much on Durant and Booker and even playing 37-year-old Chris Paul longer than they want to. The Clippers, even with their two marquee stars, seem to be prepared for someone to be unavailable because that’s been their history.
Lue tossed out all-guard lineups, giving way to the Suns’ size but maximizing the end-to-end speed of his players and hoped to just wear the Suns out by the end of 48 minutes. And they almost pulled it off.
He started Nicolas Batum and dusted off Marcus Morris Sr., while also giving Bones Hyland free rein in the open floor. Hyland was setting the desperate and disappointed Clippers faithful on a high and continued pressing with energy on offense, scoring 20 in 21 minutes.
Norman Powell — a player who doesn’t know if he’ll get seven shots or 17 with the fluctuating lineups — erupted for 42 on 15-of-23 shooting, including seven triples. He and Russell Westbrook were balls of energy, annoying the Suns with their activity and hands. Westbrook had a game not many believed was possible given his last wayward seasons, with 30 points, 12 assists and 8 rebounds.
After the Suns took a 13-point lead early in the fourth following 36 minutes of wrestling with the Clippers’ energy, the home team had one last burst. Westbrook’s two free throws made it a 3-point game with 1:44 remaining.
On the ensuing possession, Hyland left Torrey Craig alone in the corner — and in Durant’s line of sight. They’d been aggressive with their attention on Durant, so the mistake was somewhat admirable, if not foolish.
Durant easily found Craig for a triple to give the Suns some breathing room and a chance to collect themselves before Saturday’s matinee.
If anyone can somewhat relate to what Leonard is going through, with stops and starts and fits and frustrations, it’s Durant.
“You prepare for this time of the year all season,” Durant said of Leonard. “You wish you had more control over [the injury], it’s just a tough situation. You want to be out there with your teammates, you feel like you’re letting a lot of people down. It’s a lot on your mind at this time. You just try to focus on your rehab and get back as soon as possible.”
If any team can relate to the uncertainty of the present being affected by the past, the Clippers need not look any farther than the Phoenix Suns — even if the Suns are only in the mood to exorcise their own demons.