Clippers push Suns, but Devin Booker's big game and another injury too much in Game 1

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Clippers guard Terance Mann and forward Marcus Morris Sr. defend on a shot by Phoenix guard Devin Booker on June 20, 2011.
Clippers guard Terance Mann and forward Marcus Morris defend on a shot by Phoenix guard Devin Booker. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

The Clippers waited 51 years to reach Sunday, a conference-finals debut that began when they left their hotel in 111-degree heat and entered the crucible of a raucous, roaring road arena.

But four weeks into this postseason, the Clippers still are waiting to take control of a series from its start.

This venture into uncharted franchise territory began on familiar footing, their 120-114 loss to Phoenix leaving them trailing 1-0 for the third consecutive round. Despite tired legs and knee injuries that kept All-Star Kawhi Leonard in California and starting forward Marcus Morris on the bench for all but six minutes in the second half, it wasn’t sealed until five seconds to play, when Nicolas Batum’s three-pointer missed and the Suns' Devin Booker grabbed the rebound.

Booker screamed, his team’s seventh consecutive playoff win secured, but it was lost amid the din of a sold-out arena. The volume rose again when he completed his first career triple-double of 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists by making the game-ending free throws.

“We did OK,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We'll be better.”

As quickly as fans watching the first conference-finals victory here in 11 years whipped orange towels over their heads and danced, the Clippers said they began plotting the kind of counters that have rescued them, twice, from deficits greater than this.

“I expect us to get better as the series goes,” said Paul George, whose 34 points led the Clippers. “We've been great at it. It's nothing to kind of panic over right now.

“… But good thing about it, we expect a long series. All they did was win one game.”

It was just one game, but already this series has tested the Clippers’ ability to fight back. Where their rallies against Dallas and Utah were keyed by Lue’s use of a deep, unflappable rotation to outmaneuver opponents by switching lineups and often playing small, the injury to Morris could remove one option at Lue’s disposal.

Lue didn’t offer details on Morris’ status for Game 2 on Tuesday. It was Morris whom Lue identified before tipoff as the kind of player required to fill the gap left by Leonard’s void, but Morris’ mobility was visibly limited while he made three of 11 shots for six points. Terance Mann, who stepped up for Leonard with a career-high 39 points to eliminate Utah, finished with just nine.

The Clippers opted to play a traditional center in either Ivica Zubac or DeMarcus Cousins for all but the final five minutes of the second half. As part of a deep rotation played to offset the effects of what Lue called a “crazy” 36-hour turnaround from Friday’s series-clinching win against Utah, Cousins scored 11 points in the first half, including a dunk so violent it sent Dario Saric to the floor. But when Cousins' minutes overlapped with Suns center Deandre Ayton's, the advantage disappeared.

The final Clippers lineup, with Mann flanking smaller guards Reggie Jackson and Rajon Rondo, allowed their deficit to balloon to 10 with 1:59 to play before reducing it to just two with 22 seconds left.

Enter Booker. His dunk, off an assist by Jae Crowder, widened the lead to four. After 44 minutes of the Clippers trying to target him defensively and sending delayed traps at him to force passes, he walked down a hallway to the locker room while holding an iPhone, celebrating via video chat with Chris Paul, the former Clippers point guard whose play has elevated the Suns’ ceiling, but whose series debut is unknown as he remains in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

The Clippers shot 42% from deep, becoming only the third team in playoff history to make at least 20 three-pointers in consecutive games. It was almost enough to compensate for their trouble stopping the drives of Booker, who, if he hit a dead end, usually found Ayton, who finished with 20 points, with all but two of his 14 shots within six feet of the rim.

“I had five turnovers,” Clippers guard Reggie Jackson said after scoring 24 points with six rebounds and four assists. “I can't do that and I think I had three or four in the fourth. When you need baskets when it was a tie game, I did a poor job of allowing us to get shots and giving ourselves a chance. I've got to be better.”

Two hours earlier, an entire section behind the Suns’ bench rose to take pictures of Nick McKellar, a fan who’d become a local celebrity overnight last week after a video went viral of him punching a Nuggets fan in Denver, then yelling, “Suns in four.”

Suns forward Mikal Bridges celebrates after dunking against the Clippers in Game 1.
Suns forward Mikal Bridges celebrates after dunking against the Clippers during Game 1 on Sunday in Phoenix. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Fifteen minutes after the Suns’ victory was secure, having landed the first blow, fans still were gathering on the arena concourse, chanting his catchphrase.

The Clippers have spent weeks upending such predictions.

“We'll adjust,” Cousins said, flashing a knowing smile. “I promise.”

Clippers-Suns finals schedule
Clippers-Suns finals schedule (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.