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Clippers’ comeback falls short against Suns

Clippers comeback falls short against Suns


The Clippers have called Robert Covington their teammate for all of 12 days. But already they feel comfortable in his hands.

Covington stole passes thrown by the least turnover-prone team in the NBA on Tuesday in Phoenix. He deflected others that otherwise would have led to baskets. And as night fell inside Footprint Center, he reached down, grabbed the Clippers by their collars, and pulled them back into a game they had little business being in, just as desert quicksand had seemed to swallow a fatigued roster playing on a second consecutive night, and for the third time in four days.

Covington’s fingerprints were all over a 13-point Clippers comeback that unfurled in slightly more than six minutes between the third and fourth quarters, grabbing four rebounds and stealing two passes amid a run that seemed to momentarily stun Phoenix.

“The comeback, I mean, that’s who we are,” forward Nicolas Batum said.

But the owner of the NBA’s best record is who the Suns are. And playing after two days of rest, against a Clippers team whose starting back court was dangerously effective playing heavy minutes Monday against Golden State but dragged 24 hours later, and the Suns held on for a 103-96 win. The Suns (47-10) improved to 24-3 in games within five points in the last five minutes by not letting Covington and the Clippers get their hands on what would have been perhaps their most stunning win in a season with several candidates.

Phoenix’s 103-96 victory was never truly safe until Mikal Bridges made a three-pointer with 39 seconds to play for a seven-point lead, a moment that led Clippers coach Tyronn Lue to finally remove Covington and the rest of the lineup that had sparked their turnaround after trailing 81-68 with 1:11 remaining in the third quarter.

Covington, who scored six points with eight rebounds and three steals, including interceptions of Torrey Craig and Chris Paul in the final quarter, lived up to his statement from only 24 hours earlier, when his defensive disruption — particularly when playing away from the ball handler, where he is able to use his nine years of experience to roam and pick off passes like a free safety standing 6 feet 6 with a 7-1 wingspan — led him to say he’s “probably got the fastest hands in the league when it comes down to it.”

“Insane,” Batum said of Covington. “How many steals he had? Three? Feel like he got 10.

“He’s got the quickest hands. I thought Kawhi [Leonard] was No.1. I think RoCo might be No.1.”

Marcus Morris Sr. scored 23 points, Batum scored 18 to pass 10,000 for his career, and Reggie Jackson scored 14 but made just seven of 26 shots in 37 minutes, one night after playing 37 against Golden State. And Terance Mann, a 25-point key Monday in 39 minutes, mustered just two points, making one of six shots, in 32 minutes.

The Clippers join the defunct Tri-Cities Blackhawks of 1950-51 and Minnesota four years ago as the only teams in NBA history that will play 61 games before the All-Star game, and they looked every bit like a team pushed to the schedule’s limit in moments Tuesday, none more so than when Phoenix took its 13-point lead behind a 15-2 run in just 2:47.

Phoenix Suns forward Cameron Johnson knocks the ball away from Clippers forward Robert Covington during the first half Tuesday in Phoenix.

(Matt York / Associated Press)

It was why the injection of Covington into the lineup was so vital, providing stops — and time — for the Clippers to gain traction and build a comeback. The Suns’ 17 turnovers were a season high, and two more than their last two games combined. At one point, Lue turned to Paul and told him not to get too comfortable because the Clippers “always come back,” he said. And indeed they did, trailing by six at halftime before locking up the score midway through the third quarter.

The Clippers have been a feel-good story of squeezing virtually every ounce of utility out of an injury-riddled roster. Phoenix, meanwhile, has resembled basketball’s version of a thresher, ripping through the NBA and extracting what it wants. The Suns have won 17 of their last 18 games and since Jan. 1 have lost just twice while posting the NBA’s best assist-to-turnover percentage.

Their aggressive defense on the perimeter helped limit the Clippers (29-31) to six points over the final six minutes.

Covington’s disruption is not an accident but a product of what he called the ritual of “practice, repetition, instinct.”

During parts of four seasons in Philadelphia, Covington became especially proficient in a drill in which the 76ers would station two lights generally nine feet apart. The lights flashed at random and players were timed how quickly they could pass a hand in front of it. Eventually, the 76ers’ player performance staff, which then included Todd Wright, the Clippers’ vice president of player performance since 2019, ramped up the difficulty by forcing players to move toward each flashing strobe in a different manner — only shuffling, or twisting their hips to step over one leg, like a defensive back preparing to turn upfield.

The drill helped hardwire the instincts to jump passing lanes and fluster opponents. The hands did nearly everything Tuesday, except deliver a win.





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