EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns nearly erase 31-point deficit in strong comeback effort vs. Clippers

Jan 3, 2021, 10:17 PM | Updated: 10:20 pm
Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) tries to gain control of the ball as he is guarded b...

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) tries to gain control of the ball as he is guarded by Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges, left, and guard Cameron Payne (15) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

(AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

The Phoenix Suns have been prone to some slow starts over a six-game run to begin the season. It hasn’t really come back to bite them in a game yet, but boy did they get smacked in the mouth for having another on Sunday.

The Los Angeles Clippers played with purpose and floored the Suns early, at one point leading by as many as 31 in the first half. From that point, the Suns showed you everything you’d want outside of a win. They found their stride in the second quarter and didn’t look back, really making the Clippers earn a 112-107 win.

The Suns don’t do moral victories but it’s probably the closest they’ll get to one all season.

“I loved the way we scrapped and battled,” head coach Monty Williams said. “We know we can beat that team because we’ve done it before. We’ve just got to get off a better start than we did tonight.”

For whatever reason, the Suns’ high level of intensity they play with takes a bit to get going. They’ve destroyed teams in the second quarter during the 5-1 run because that’s when they start to click into gear.

The Clippers did not allow them the chance to.

The Suns (5-2) entered play with the third-best opposing shooting numbers from three-point range at 30.8%, per Cleaning the Glass. Those numbers are always going to balance out eventually but even Sunday’s turn was a bit aggressive.

The Clippers (5-2) began the game 10-of-14 from deep while the Suns were just 1-of-11. On top of that, Phoenix committed 10 turnovers in the first 15 minutes that Los Angeles scored 15 points off. Plus, Paul George had 14 points in the first quarter.

“They came out shooting the heck out of the ball,” Williams said. “Even the threes they made, a lot of those threes were off the dribble with a hand in their face. It’s like, ‘What defense do you have for that?’ But I thought the turnovers in the first half really put us in a tough spot.”

Outside of the turnovers and a few missed defensive rotations, it wasn’t really all that far off from the Suns’ level of play in the first six games. But the Clippers sure were a whole other level of opponent. They came out swarming defensively and moving crisply offensively, at one point going on a 21-0 run in less than four minutes.

That was the recipe for a 31-point deficit, one the Suns got down to 20 at halftime after Chris Paul played the entire second quarter and Devin Booker ended the half at 21 minutes. Those two rallied the team on almost every possession in the way you’ve wanted to see this season. A 3-of-17 first-half shooting performance from deep was the only reason it wasn’t down to a 10-point or less disadvantage.

The score finally course-corrected in the second half. Despite the Clippers getting some big answers in the third quarter to manage 24 points, the Suns scored 37. They kept in that second-quarter gear the rest of the game, getting the Clippers lead down to two at one point early in the fourth quarter. After that awful 10-turnover start, the Suns proceeded to give away the ball just once over 27:04 of game time from the early second quarter to fourth.

On the early problems, Williams said the Suns were not playing with pace through his 0.5 offense, and he sounded surprised at how off-guard his team looked with the Clippers’ switching. Combine that with Los Angeles making enough shots and Phoenix turning the ball over enough and the offense was in a slog.

“Once we started moving and playing with pace and getting some stops, the game changed,” Williams said.

“We were in desperate times,” Booker said. “When you’re making shots, the ball moves a lot better. We did take care of the ball better and that’s what allowed us to go on the run we had.”

Kawhi Leonard’s putrid 4-of-21 shooting night kept the Suns in it through crunch time as he built a house on the north-side basket. With the Suns down three and under 90 seconds left, Paul missed his signature mid-range jumper. After another Leonard miss, Williams called a set from the bench that resulted in an open Booker three off the catch. He missed, though, and the Clippers got a three of their own on the other end to seal the game.

Booker played the entire second half, looking relatively fresh for a guy that would finish at 45 minutes. Williams said the decision to extend Booker’s minutes like that comes with a trust he’s built for Booker to play like himself still when he does. Booker held up his end.

He finally looked like himself as a passer, in particular, breaking down the Los Angeles defense possession after possession. He hit some ridiculous shots as well on a 7-of-13 shooting night.

He finished with 25 points, five rebounds, eight assists and only two turnovers after giving the ball away was an issue for him six games in. Booker was plus-14, meaning the Suns were minus-19 in that three minutes he rested.

George scored 39 points and was the best player on the floor. He shot 15-of-24 and made seven three-pointers, all while guarding Booker most of the night. The Clippers as a team hit 17 of their 29 three-point attempts (58.6%), converting on enough consistently in the second half to keep the Suns at bay.

Deandre Ayton had his second straight great game. This one had the most key and timely buckets from him in his career, as he had four of his eight rebounds on the offensive glass, coming up clutch late.

He had 24 points on 12 shots, shooting 6-of-7 from the foul line.

Paul added 15 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Mikal Bridges (1-of-5), Cam Johnson (2-of-8) and Jae Crowder (2-of-6) did not hold up their end of the bargain as three-point shooters.

Through seven games, the Suns are now 5-2, with most of that coming via playing hard and as a team. Both losses, too, have had some light shining through the cracks.

Their offense still needs to sync up and there are some smaller problems there as well, but Booker laid it out perfectly with where they’re at.

“A loss is a lesson for us, so we just have to go into film and learn from our mistakes,” he said. “We’ve already talked about it throughout the locker room postgame, we’re sitting in there and still going over schemes and reads and reacts — that’s the things we’re gonna have to do is have more conversations with each other because it was a short offseason with the new team. You can think of these games as kind of like pickup games that matter. So we’re still trying to figure some things out but we’ve done pretty well to start.”

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