The LA Clippers came up just short on Wednesday night, losing an all-important matchup with the Phoenix Suns that will almost certainly determine the Western Conference playoff standings.
LA fought from behind all night long, trailing by 14 points en route to a 101-109 defeat. The two teams were rarely that far apart, though — Phoenix maintained a commanding lead through the second and third quarters, but the Clippers managed to make it a one-point game early in the fourth. Ultimately, though, the Suns pulled away.
Chris Paul was arguably the biggest reason for that. The former Clippers point guard finished the night with 28 points — 25 of which he scored in the second half — to go along with 10 assists, three rebounds and three steals in 32 minutes of action. He personally outscored the Clippers over the final six minutes of the contest.
"As far as the habits, like communication, we were terrible tonight," Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said after the game. "Like how many layups we gave up off miscommunications and wide-open threes, and just wasn't talking and just wasn't communicating... Just looking at it, we probably giving 'em 20-22 points, just off of non-communication."
The Clippers still got a handful of strong performances (some of which we'll be discussing shortly), but it's difficult to win big games like this when several key players are sidelined. It seems Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley will return sooner rather than later, but for now, the Clippers will have to continue leaning on their role players to step up.
With the loss, LA dropped to 43-21 on the season, while Phoenix improved to 44-18.
Let's take a closer look at a few things we can take from the performance.
Ivica Zubac Puts His Passing on Display
Ivica Zubac has made huge strides to improve his game since he was first traded to the Clippers in 2019. Not only is the 24-year-old big man a much more efficient and frequent finisher at the rim, but he's also gotten more of an opportunity to show off his ability as a passer this season. Those skills were on display early in LA's loss to Phoenix.
Zubac assisted on LA's first bucket of the game, a dunk by Terance Mann. A few moments later, Paul George fed Zu off a pick-and-roll. He gathered and drove into the paint, where he was met by two Suns — Deandre Ayton and Torrey Craig. Zubac immediately kicked it out to Reggie Jackson on the left wing, who dished to Marcus Morris Sr. in the left corner. With Craig drawn into the paint, Morris was left wide-open for a routine three-pointer from his favorite spot on the floor. Unsurprisingly, it fell.
Zubac didn't earn the assist for that bucket, but he was instrumental in setting it up. It's a pattern we've seen time and time again this season. When Zu gets doubled at the rim, he rarely hesitates to send the ball back out to the perimeter. Eventually, that ball ends up in the hands of a wide-open shooter, who knocks down an easy three-pointer. It's part of the reason why the Clippers lead the league in three-point percentage and have nine players shooting above 39% from deep (not including 10-day signees Malik Fitts and Yogi Ferrell).
Ultimately, it all goes to show that surrounding Zubac with shooters is one of the best lineup decisions this team can make, and it helps bolster the argument that he should remain in the starting rotation even after Serge Ibaka is healthy enough to return to the floor.
Rajon Rondo Continues to Impress
The Rajon Rondo trade was met with some criticism when it was first announced (myself included), but so far, it looks as though the team made the right decision to pursue him.
Rondo has been nothing short of excellent off the bench through his first 11 contests, posting averages of 6.7 points, 2.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists in a little less than 20 minutes per game. Even in losses, he's generally been a positive in his time on the floor.
The pairing of Rondo and Nicolas Batum has been particularly successful so far. The duo almost always shares the floor and will typically sub into games together, and their combination of basketball IQ and leadership has made them a difficult pair to play against.
Per 100 possessions, the two-man lineup of Batum and Rondo is outscoring opponents by 18.6 points, recording nearly six more assists and seven more rebounds, according to Basketball-Reference. It isn't the largest sample size — Batum and Rondo have shared the floor for roughly 160 minutes since the latter made his debut — but Rondo has only logged 214 total minutes with the Clippers.
Assuming the two can continue this pattern in the postseason, they could end up being some of the most important players in LA's push for the title.
Let's Talk Playoff Implications
There's no need to dance around the truth here — the Clippers' chances of claiming the No. 2 seed took a huge hit on Wednesday night. Instead of being effectively tied with Phoenix in the standings, LA now sits two games back and has three more losses than its Pacific Division rival.
Per Basketball-Reference's playoff probabilities report, the Clippers currently have a 60.5% chance to finish the season as the No. 3 seed, followed by a 22.9% chance at the two and 16.0% chance at the four. However, even the three is something they'll have to fight for.
The Denver Nuggets are right on LA's tail, currently sitting just one game back in the standings. They host the Toronto Raptors later tonight, and if they win, they'll be even closer to the Clippers.
Spoiler alert: LA hosts Denver on Saturday night.
If the Nuggets win both games, they would also take the season series with the Clippers — giving them the tiebreaker — and push them ahead of LA in the standings.
Perhaps the Clippers will get Leonard back for Saturday's contest, but if not, this unit will need to fight hard to stave off the Nuggets and hang onto the three. Otherwise, if things break accordingly, LA could end up facing off with the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.
The Clippers do have a generally favorable schedule from here on out, as they've got just eight games to play between now and May 16. Half of those contests will come against teams currently in the playoff picture, including the play-in.
Regardless, the Clippers will need to finish the season strong if they hope to have a favorable path to the title.