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Whicker: Clippers forced to take pop quiz in Phoenix, and questions got harder

Algebra 2 is tougher than Algebra 1. The steps at the top of the flight are more demanding than the ones at the bottom.

Phoenix represents another degree of difficulty for the Clippers, even when they are playing without inadequate rehearsal, even when TV schedulers make them perform at lunch. This, of course, is the way it’s drawn up.

On Sunday, the Suns scored 120 points without Chris Paul, the 36-year-old scoutmaster who was given credit for grabbing this dusty franchise by the lapels and basically pulling it to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Either he was doing a great job with the joystick, back home with Jake and Cliff and Sabrina, or this is a much better and more resourceful team than we’ve been told.

Still, the Clippers took the blows and kept coming, to the point that Terance Mann’s 3-pointer cut the lead to two with 22 seconds left. Then Devin Booker took advantage of a defensive glitch on an in-bounds play and hit yet another shot, and Phoenix took a 1-0 Western Conference finals lead, 120–114.

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

It was reminiscent of the first two losses in the second-round series against Utah, in which the top-seeded Jazz controlled most of the play and the Clippers slipped one more flurry at the end before the bell.

The Clippers brushed aside the fatigue factor, probably because the question was superfluous. Of course it played a part, as witnessed by their 34.8 percent shooting in the fourth quarter and their willingness to take the first debatable shot available, instead of getting inside the defense as they did in Friday night’s comeback to close out the Jazz.

Still, they got 34 points off their bench, with DeMarcus Cousins reeling in the years during an 11-point second quarter. It was more of a defensive problem, with Booker pounding away from the 18-foot range in the second half and winding up with 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists.

Cameron Payne, normally Paul’s backup, also had nine assists and gave the Suns a serrated edge. That’s 31 assists for the Suns compared to seven turnovers. Who knew Kawhi Leonard would be harder to replace, in the very short term, than Paul?

Leonard is out with a sprained knee and no one should expect to see him Tuesday. The Clippers could have used his defense Sunday. They led, 84-78, when Booker began his mid-range mischief, scoring the next 10 Phoenix points and really not letting up until Cam Johnson’s offensive rebound (which the Clippers thought was basket interference) set up a 105-95 lead.

The Clippers have seen high pick-and-rolls for several seasons. This is different because of the Suns’ 6-foot-11 DeAndre Ayton, the picker-and-roller. “He’s more agile, a better finisher than the bigs we’ve faced,” Paul George said.

If the Clippers use Ivica Zubac in those situations, they have trouble combatting the pick-and-roll, and if they don’t, Ayton is far more willing than Rudy Gobert was to bring down the thunder on the smalls that are pretending to defend him.

Although Dallas’ Luka Doncic is still the best player the Clippers have encountered in this postseason, he didn’t have enough help. Although Utah’s Donovan Mitchell is the most explosive long-range scorer the Clippers or anyone else will run into, Booker is more versatile and sophisticated.

And the Suns are a much better passing team than Dallas or Utah, especially inside the lane. Add the lanky presence of Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder to bother George (34 points on 10-for-26 shooting), and the Clippers definitely know they’ve been sent to the next level.

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