Clippers get physical with Booker, Ayton’s ascent continues in Suns loss
PHOENIX — When the Phoenix Suns are facing a team with two All-Stars, they need their All-Star to be at that level too.
Devin Booker busted his behind all night, working hard defensively by preventing opportunities on the ball and chasing Paul George around screens off it.
He was flat-out sprinting when he had to, getting on the floor for loose balls and doing everything he could to get open on the offensive end.
But the Los Angeles Clippers had a clear gameplan on Wednesday night. They were going to use switches, blitzes and more through the lengthy all-world defense of George and Kawhi Leonard to contain Booker. And they were going to make him feel it when they were doing so.
Booker is used to tactics deployed specifically against him. A great team, though, with two of the best defenders in the league and a friendly whistle is sometimes too much to overcome.
He was never able to truly get it going offensively, and that plus some hot Clippers shooting eventually led to a decent Clippers lead in the second half and a 102-92 loss for the Suns.
Booker didn’t necessarily play badly — he was not nearly as bad as a 5-for-19 shooting night for 14 points would suggest.
The Clippers, however, took what we mentioned above and controlled the variables of the matchup as much as possible. They were fine with giving Deandre Ayton room on dives to the basket, and ditto to almost anyone else in the offense doing anything, as long as they were keeping track of Booker.
Mixed in between that defense were some makeable shots for Booker, and when those brief glimpses of light don’t end in buckets, it’s tough to find any footing on the game. He still managed to provide for others through that for 10 assists.
When head coach Monty Williams was asked about the gameplan against Booker, he shrugged that off and instead went to how much Booker was hit.
“It’s frustrating when Devin played 39 minutes, way too many, and most of that, on offense — their hands are all over him,” Williams said. “I don’t know what else a guy can do. It’s just hard … I’m gonna save my money. It’s hard.”
Booker had a mark on his neck from the game that resembled a few fingers catching him and he was asked about it afterward, only to playfully say he couldn’t recall what it came from.
The game itself wasn’t much to fuss about. The Clippers were settling for jumpers throughout most of the first half and they weren’t going in much early. Then, Leonard and George got rolling just a bit while three-pointers started to fall in the second quarter when Los Angeles shot 7-of-10 from deep.
The Clippers went from down eight at the end of the first quarter to up five at halftime. That was all while they continued squeezing the life out of the Suns’ offense through the plan for Booker, and that kept working just as much as the jumpers continued to go in.
Los Angeles was 12-for-26 from three-point range at one point, and a 15-2 run in the third quarter that included three deep balls stretched the Suns’ deficit to 15. The Clippers stuck to what got them there the rest of the way to a win.
Leonard finished with 24 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and three steals. George was only 4-for-13, but all of his 11 points came when the Clippers needed them as the Suns found some momentum.
The earlier mention of Ayton wasn’t to discredit his performance, by the way. He was great in this game and the formula for his stellar play at this level continues to be a souped-up version of an energy big. Roll to the rim like crazy, finish everything around the rim and crash the offensive glass. No flashy post moves or jumpers required.
It also helps that he had a powwow with his point guard Ricky Rubio after the All-Star break.
“All that started on the plane. I told him we could be the best offensive pick-and-roll duo in the league,” Ayton said.
“He just sat me down with some film, he and (assistant) coach Darko (Rajakovic). Just reading how people guard Ricky, setting the screens and really getting out of the screen and trusting him that he’s gonna throw the ball up for me and just make the right play to be honest.”
Ayton touted the consistency of the two-man game since he “peeped it out” and that flashed again in this game.
The two have shown the most chemistry they have all season, as Rubio has had 15 of his 32 assists in the last three games going to Ayton. That includes seven of his 10 assists from Wednesday.
For Ayton on defense, that’s where he’s shown the most promise.
After Ayton grew leaps and bounds from his poor form at Arizona as a rookie, this year he’s developing as a shot-blocker, beyond most of those coming only on his own man, to doing more in help defense.
He’s made huge strides in drop coverage on pick-and-rolls, also known as when he’s picking the right amount of space between the ball-handler, his own man and the basket after the screen. From there, it’s making the right decision, and he’s pretty good at doing that while making a play on the ball too.
It cannot be understated how immense his growth has been as a rim protector in the past 20 months, even as just as a presence.
“It’s getting better,” Williams said of Ayton’s defense. “When he plays with that disposition it makes it easier on everybody else. Sometimes we look at the blocked shots, I look at him being there and distracting shots or him being there and they see him and they pass it.
“To me, that’s a sign that he’s becoming a force in the paint.”
That’s where some of his blocked shots have come and it’s even more encouraging to see that he’s picking up more when his man isn’t even in the play and he’s off the ball.
Ayton is already capable of switching onto anyone and is borderline great for a big man defending on the ball already. If he can keep patching together small but noticeable ticks of improvement in the team defense aspects like he showed on Wednesday, now we’re talking about a guy who can make All-Defense teams.
Oh, we forgot the numbers. Ayton had 25 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks. Not too shabby, eh!
The scoreboard and stats won’t reflect it, but it was a hard-fought effort for the Suns. They can build off that for the last five games of the homestand.
They were missing an extra spark in this game, though, and that’s because Kelly Oubre Jr. was out due to a right knee injury. That’s all the information that’s been released, but bad signs like Williams saying they are waiting on “opinions” and Rubio wearing Oubre’s practice jersey in his pregame warmup are pointing towards this being more than just a game or two absence.
Even if they fight like they did on Wednesday, Phoenix needs Oubre exactly for games like that, and they’ll need him the rest of the way if they want to make any more noise this season.
Game two of the homestand is up on Friday against the Detroit Pistons. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.