Even in this age of ticky-tack fouls and an emphasis on giving offensive players more room to breath (and thus score), it’s still assumed that the NBA playoffs are a different beast than the regular season.
Fouls are harder and called less often, trash-talking is amplified, and, for the most part, opposing teams enter each matchup with a fierce intensity that more resembles hatred than professional competitiveness. Things are bound to get chippy and tempers are sure to flare. And even though there’s still more than a quarter of the regular season to go, that’s precisely what happened in the L.A. Clippers’ 113-103 victory over the Phoenix Suns Thursday night.
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With both teams vying for seeding position in a tightly-packed Western Conference and both intent on establishing a narrative/identity for the postseason—the young and inexperienced Suns wanting to show that their .706 winning percentage is no fluke, and the Clippers trying to prove that last year’s early exit from the playoffs was exactly that, a fluke—the game had the feel of a playoff matchup from the opening tip.
When it was all said and done, two flagrant fouls were called, two Clippers were ejected, and there was enough smack talking to fill a small library.
‘They’re Fighting for Something, We’re Fighting for Something’
Speaking to reporters after the game, Clippers head coach Ty Lue suggested all the chaos was perfectly fine, even appreciated:
I don’t have any concerns, I love it. You’re competing at a high level against one of the best teams in the league, you do what you got to do to win. I thought our guys were physical, I thought we competed, I thought we fought. Just stayed the course. There’s gonna be games like this where it’s gonna get chippy. They’re fighting for something, we’re fighting for something, so it’s gonna happen. I’m ok with it.
[This] was a playoff-type game — hard fouls, ejections, guys competing at a high level. You need these types of games to kind of see where you are right now. Even though we still got a long way to go and we’re still progressing, I thought was a good win for us.
The game was physical and “chatty” throughout, but the first big incident occurred toward the end of the third quarter, when Kawhi Leonard drove the lane and was hit hard by Suns guard Devin Booker. Back in the 80s and 90s, the foul may not have even raised an eyebrow, but in today’s game, it resulted in a Flagrant 1 call on Booker. Leonard, who lay on the floor for a few seconds after the whistle, later shrugged off the hit.
“This is what I play the game for. I enjoy the aggressiveness out there,” said the two-time Finals MVP, who dropped 27 points on 10-for-20 shooting, including an angry dunk over Suns center Deandre Ayton.
Another Clipper who is not averse to physical confrontation is Patrick Beverley, who was playing in his second game since returning from a 12-game absence due to knee soreness. The notoriously aggressive and loud Beverley was ejected from the game with 7:01 remaining in the fourth quarter for a hockey-like check applied to Suns’ point guard Chris Paul as Paul tried to launch a three-quarter court three-pointer.
Beverley and Paul have some history, but it wasn’t clear if that was Beverley’s motivation for the hard foul. In fact, after the game, Paul, like Leonard, shrugged off questions about the play.
“I’m worried about me. I play the game,” said Paul. “I knew that he was about to try to take a foul, so I jumped, trying to get a three, try to see if I could get three free throws. It is what it is.”
Clippers forward Marcus Morris was also ejected late in the game, after the outcome had been decided, seemingly from his oversized reaction to a Leonard dunk. (Coincidentally, Morris’s twin brother Markieff, who plays for the Lakers, was also ejected in the fourth quarter of his Thursday night game, a loss to the Miami Heat.)
Rondo Brings the Play AND the Chatter
As the playoffs approach, the Clippers are trying to create a reputation on the defensive end for being tough. Recently, Paul George stated that he wants his team to install “fear” in opponents through aggressive defense and everybody “flying around” the court. One player who is making that ideal a reality is newly acquired point guard Rajon Rondo.
Rondo, who arrived in L.A. from Atlanta following a trade deadline swap for Lou Williams, was praised by teammates and Lue following the Suns game for his intensity and ability to orchestrate a concerted effort on the defensive end. While Rondo also brought it on offense—scoring 15 points and dishing out nine assists in extended minutes following Beverley’s ejection—his mouth was equally engaged.
“I love to chat a little bit, and they pretty much started in the first half,” said Rondo, who was seen jawing throughout but particularly with Paul after the Suns guard urged him to take a three-pointer late in the fourth quarter, which Rondo nailed. “Other than that, I was just trying to play the game. But sometimes it involves a little bit of chatter.”
While that may be true, Clippers forward Paul George was having none of it, preferring instead to let his play do the talking:
I don’t know what their chirp was about. We focused on us. I don’t care what they’re doing over there. I don’t care who they are or what they’re doing. I’m locked in. They can do the chirping, I let them have it tonight. I just stayed in my zone, stayed in my place. But again, I don’t care what they’re doing, we’re focused on us over here, we’re focused on getting better. Tonight was a fun matchup, and we appreciate the challenge.
George, who is dealing with a persistent toe issue, scored 33 points on the strength of 7-for-9 shooting from three. It was the second straight game he’s gone for more than 30, lighting up Portland for 36 in a win 17-point win Tuesday night.