PHOENIX — Long, languid strides brought Kevin Durant, the 13-time All-Star in all-black, from one end of Footprint Arena’s court to a chair at its middle Thursday. A personal highlight reel played on a jumbotron overhead, and a midday crowd packed into one side of the arena’s lower bowl howled at the sight of him.
Durant gripped a microphone in his left hand, opened his mouth and tried uttering his first public words as a Phoenix Sun since a trade last week ended Brooklyn’s super-team experiment. But a crowd estimated around 3,000, revved up by a T-shirt toss featuring the franchise’s gorilla mascot and the prospect of a long-sought championship, let him go no further, their chants of “KD, KD” forcing the player so often impossible to stop to pause.
He hopes to return from a knee injury soon after the league’s All-Star break, later this month, he said, and when he does, he will be accompanied by the pressure he has come to expect being “one of the best players to ever play the game.”
“I know how significant a championship is to a franchise and to a city,” Durant would later say. “I’ve been a part of two of those and I’m looking forward to getting back on that road to try to do it again.”
Just like that, after he’d held up a Suns jersey and hugged his mother, he was gone. And here is where the Los Angeles Clippers come in — literally through the same tunnel through which had exited, hours later, preparing for warmups ahead of a 116-107 victory. They have not been the West’s most consistent team, like Denver. And they are no longer discussed as its most loaded, like Phoenix.
“It’s a tough trio and it reminds you of the Klay (Thompson), Steph (Curry) and KD, even though CP is a little older now,” said Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, who game-planned for Durant in the Finals while in Cleveland. “... It’s a tough cover, it’s a tough matchup, just interested to see how they play, who they share the basketball. But on paper, it looks really good.”
What is impossible to dismiss is that the Clippers, on paper, and despite months of inconsistency, may yet still look like a legitimate postseason challenger should they integrate backup center Mason Plumlee, Bones Hyland, and veteran guard Eric Gordon in their final 21 games after the break.
Whether they can get there and challenge the Suns trio of Durant, Devin Booker and Chris Paul, among other West contenders, could hinge heavily on the critical evaluation period that continued Thursday and will last the rest of the month, as Lue hopes to finally solve the season-long riddle of who plays best with whom. The starting lineup isn’t off limits. He will continue to test different end-of-game lineups, too. Sacrificing will be necessary, Lue said.
“The way we’ve been coaching the last 15 games or so, just whoever is playing best is going to play to finish games,” Lue said.
On Thursday, it was Gordon joining Kawhi Leonard and Paul George again as the Clippers survived Josh Okogie’s shooting onslaught – six three-pointers – and closed out a victory that leaves them 33-28.
With Durant out, there was a margin for error that isn’t likely to exist in the playoffs, and one factor that will require remedying to reach their potential is sharpening their point-of-attack defense. Breakdowns have allowed drivers into the paint, forced the Clippers’ defense to scramble and allowed three-point looks. For the past month, Clippers opponents have shot a league-high 42.2% on above-the-break three-pointers, and the third-most accurate mark from the corners, and Okogie continued to take advantage.
The Clippers can also not shake moments of carelessness. Twice in the first half were turnovers in which the Clippers threw out-of-bounds passes directly to a Phoenix defender, who immediately scored. Their 10-point lead disappeared; with three minutes still to go before halftime, they had already exceeded their turnover total from all of Tuesday’s victory against Golden State.
The Clippers role players were invaluable – Gordon had 13 points and center Ivica Zubac had 13 points and 12 rebounds, plus assisted on Terance Mann’s backdoor dunk that iced the victory.
But as the trade activity in the West underscored, success hinges on stars. Leonard missed all eight of his shots in the first half, the first time he’d gone scoreless in any half this season. His first points came on free throws 24 minutes into his night – then scored 11 in his next five to push the Clippers’ lead to 91-84 after three quarters. Leonard finished with 16, highlighted by a dunk in traffic with two minutes to play, while George scored 10 of his 26 points in the final quarter as two-thirds of Phoenix’s star core, Booker and Paul, could not answer, and Durant could only watch.
Health could ultimately be the great decider in the West: Backup guard Norman Powell, a candidate for the league’s top reserve, did not travel to Phoenix while resting his right knee, though it is expected that Powell will be ready when the schedule resumes after the All-Star break, on Feb. 24. During the break, discussions are expected to continue with potential buyout candidates such as Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley, conversations that have gauged whether the goals of the players and teams align. For now, they appear to be more about diligence than imminence, with the Clippers seen as being patient before a move, if any, materializes. Skepticism remains that either veteran guard will ultimately be seen as an upgrade from the guards already on the roster.
Lue said he did not believe the buyout discussions swirling around the team had the effect of causing any current Clippers to figuratively look over their shoulders. Meanwhile, every West contender is on watch for Durant’s debut on the court – this time, in uniform.
“I appreciate the warm welcome,” Durant had said hours earlier, “but I got more work to do.”
And entering the All-Star break, so do the Clippers.