When the Clippers arrived Thursday afternoon at Staples Center, they did so as the owner of the NBA’s second-easiest remaining schedule. It was a double-edged distinction.
What might be advantageous for solidifying playoff seeding — playing the woeful quartet of Houston, Oklahoma City, Detroit and Minnesota a combined seven times over the final 20 games — also makes opportunities to gauge how the Western Conference’s third-place team might fare against playoff-caliber competition scarce.
It was why Thursday’s matchup against Phoenix, one spot ahead in the standings and owner of the league’s best record since Feb. 1, loomed so large.
And it was why, for a Clippers team still trying to identify its best lineups, ending a testy, back-and-forth matchup with a 113-103, comeback victory dripped with significance.
In a strength-versus-strength game pitting the NBA’s top-shooting team over the last two months against the Clippers and their top-five defense since the All-Star break, it was the Suns who couldn’t sustain their 66% first-half shooting.
Phoenix made five of its 16 shots in the fourth quarter and just one of its five three-pointers.
Devin Booker scored 24 to lead the Suns but failed to make a three-pointer for the second consecutive night, after missing all six less than 24 hours earlier in Phoenix’s overtime win against West-leading Utah. Chris Paul had 13 points and three assists.
“Not lethargic,” Suns coach Monty Williams said of his team’s stamina. “We just didn’t have the legs.”
Paul George scored 33 points and Kawhi Leonard added 27 for the Clippers (35-18), who made 50% of their shots and 18 of their 37 three-pointers on a night when Phoenix shot just six of 24 from deep.
In their first meeting since a January game in which Paul George got into a shouting match with Paul and Booker, the animus between the teams was not manufactured hype.
Booker sent Leonard sprawling to the floor with a hard foul. Booker and Clippers guard Patrick Beverley traded words. With seven minutes remaining, and the Clippers nursing a six-point lead, Beverley was ejected for excessive contact after putting his elbow into a splayed-out Paul as he dribbled upcourt. In the fourth quarter, for good measure, Booker and Marcus Morris earned offsetting technical fouls. Morris later earned another technical and was ejected.
“I don’t have any concerns, I love it,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said of the extracurricular activity. “You’re competing at a high level against one of the best teams in the league? Do what you got to do to win.”
Leonard’s first-half slog — four turnovers, plus an offensive foul — was followed by a third-quarter surge of 14 points, capped by a one-handed slam over 7-foot DeAndre Ayton that will assuredly come to a social-media platform near you soon.
“Kawhi took it to another level,” Lue said.
“Just being in this moment, we can look back to it when we get to those [playoff] games,” Leonard said, “and know what we got to do.”
Rajon Rondo, in his third game since being acquired by the Clippers, tied his season high in points (12) and assists (eight).
“I loved the way he controlled the game,” Lue said.
When: 7 p.m., Friday
On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal; Radio: 570, 1330
Update: The Rockets (14-37) enter in full rebuild mode, with little incentive to close the season strong given that they will keep their 2021 first-round draft pick only if it falls within the top four. Since a March 22 victory that ended its 20-game losing streak, Houston has lost seven of its last nine, though their most recent game Wednesday featured an eye-opening upset of Dallas. One beneficiary of the team’s youth movement has been USC standout Kevin Porter Jr., who has averaged 15.5 points in 30 minutes per game over 14 games.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.