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Without Leonard, Clippers have no answers for Booker, Durant, Suns win

LOS ANGELES — The Clippers tried to answer all the questions.

They had Norman Powell scoring 40 in an attempt to answer Devin Booker’s 45. They had Russell Westbrook’s 30 points and 12 assists to answer Kevin Durant’s 28 points. They had a micro-small lineup — 6’5” Terance Mann at center — to try and outscore a Suns team with the size and skill of Deandre Ayton and Durant.

Game 3 proved that only the answer to one question matters: Will Kawhi Leonard be available to play in Game 4 and beyond?

If he can play, the Clippers have a chance in a series they now trail 2-1 after a 129-124 loss to the Suns Thursday night at home. If Leonard is out more games (on top of Paul George being out, likely for this entire series) the Suns may get a lot of rest before the start of the next round.

“He desperately, desperately wants to play. This is the Playoffs. This is what these guys live for, especially him,” Clippers GM Lawrence Frank said, then added Leonard is day-to-day. The decision on if he will play in Game 4 Saturday likely will not be made until that morning.

As much as the Clippers missed Leonard’s offense, it was on the defensive end where he was missed most. Coach Tyronne Lue used Eric Gordon, Norman Powell, Westbrook and others on Booker, but it didn’t matter. Once he got rolling there was little the Clippers could do to slow him down.

“I told him after Game 1 he was the thermostat for the team, he set the tone and temperature for 48 minutes,” coach Monty Williams said of Booker.

Booker set it on both ends in this game (as he has done all series) — he had three steals and two blocked shots in Game 3. Offensively he was playing downhill — he shot 12-of-17 in the paint, on top of 3-of-7 from beyond the arc. Booker credited Durant after the game because KD’s gravity opened up the floor for his drives, which does have some truth to it.

Booker led the Suns’ attack on the smaller Clippers lineup Lue rolled out for the final nine minutes of the game (the Clippers were +8 in that stretch but were 13 down when that lineup entered the game). Those attacks resulted in the Suns getting to the line 21 more times than the Clips.

The Clippers deserve credit for an incredible effort, but the Suns had the best talent on the court. When the Suns found something that worked — a Durant/Ayton pick-and-roll — Los Angeles simply couldn’t keep pace. The Suns put up 40 with 24 free throws in the third quarter.

If Leonard is back on Saturday, the Clippers stand a chance to keep pace and even this series. The answer to the question about his availability is the only one that matters.