Kawhi Leonard and Paul George approached midcourt before tipoff Sunday evening inside Crypto.com Arena, one stoic, the other about to speak. The Clippers stars had been asked to address the crowd before the team’s home opener, and George kept his remarks brief as Leonard nodded along.
“Why not us?” George said. “Let’s go get it this year.”
All Sunday proved, as the Clippers struggled to keep pace with Phoenix during a 112-95 loss, in their second game in as many nights, was that before the Clippers can dream of getting a title, they have to get a few questions answered first.
Who will start at point guard?
Though Reggie Jackson started his third consecutive game, John Wall replaced him with the starters to open the third quarter, with Wall nearly matching Jackson’s minutes.
How often will the Clippers balance using their starting center, Ivica Zubac, versus replacing him with small lineups? Using traditional big men all game, Phoenix throttled the Clippers in the rebounding totals during the first half to build a 20-point lead, their starter Deandre Ayton once picking a rebound out of the air over the head of Jackson with ease.
Perhaps most important: Was this a case of quick-turnaround fatigue, or the Clippers not heeding coach Tyronn Lue’s offseason directive that for all their talent, they won’t maximize it without all-out effort?
“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 by during an oft-sluggish first half, with each second-half comeback attempt rebuffed quickly by Phoenix, which was led by Devin Booker’s 35 points and 16 second-chance points.
George criticized the defense equally — the on-ball defense was bad, he said, as was the off-ball defense.
“We didn’t help each other,” George said.
Marcus Morris Sr.’s 22 points were a team high.
Leonard, playing his season’s second game, logged 21 minutes and scored 11 points with six rebounds and two assists while bullying his way to the free-throw line for seven points. George, one night after scoring 40 in 39 minutes to beat Sacramento, played 34 minutes and scored 16.
Jackson didn’t score, missing all five of his shots in 24 minutes, and had two assists. He began the second half sitting in his warmups along the baseline as Wall took over the lead ballhandler role alongside George and Leonard. One night earlier, Wall’s most notable contribution while sidelined for rest in Sacramento was his sideline counsel to Norman Powell amid the starting guard’s three-for-18 shooting start to his season, Lue said before tipoff.
“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 reinforce Wall’s words approaching Powell with a joke.
“You know, me and Michael Jordan didn’t make every shot either, you know?” Lue told 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 heeding Lue’s advice to stay aggressive in ways that sometimes worked — layups and leaking out in transition for an easy dunk from Leonard in the third quarter — and sometimes didn’t — an attempted pass in traffic to Zubac that was snuffed out.
Lue has not needed to tell Wall to keep pushing. The Clippers fell behind 11-0 and didn’t score for more than three minutes to open the game, and when Wall checked in eight minutes into the opening quarter, Booker had outscored the Clippers by himself, 14-10, as Phoenix’s lead grew to 14.
Wall provided a burst that had been missing. His first pass was a perfect lob to George for a dunk. One of his first drives was a full-court burst in which Wall tried, daringly if unsuccessfully, to bring the ball all the way around his waist. Wall wasn’t perfect, making one of five free throws, but he scored 17 points, making seven of 12 shots.
Leonard logged seven third-quarter minutes, continuing his substitution pattern from his first game that featured him in three chunks of about seven minutes each — half a quarter to end the first half, followed by the first half of the third quarter to reserve time for closing minutes.