EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns-Clippers series preview: How will Phoenix fare against LA’s small ball?
The Phoenix Suns can’t seem to avoid a playoff series that has a handful of unknowns.
The latest is the Western Conference Finals, where they’ll meet the Los Angeles Clippers beginning on Sunday.
Chris Paul’s status as of Saturday afternoon had him remaining out due to health and safety protocols while the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard (knee) isn’t traveling to Phoenix for the series’ first two games, per Yahoo! Sports’ Chris Haynes.
Beyond that, the stylistic matchup of the Suns versus a Clippers team that hasn’t started a center in nine of its last 10 playoff games begs the question of how Phoenix will handle that type of unique team.
With that in mind, we’ll get to Deandre Ayton’s role in the series a little later, because the tape still shows some key areas the Suns will have to be great in before we even arrive at Ayton.
Two near-guarantees from the regular season matchups that will carry over to the series are 1) double-teams, blitzes and such coming Devin Booker’s way and 2) the Clippers switching defensively far more than the Los Angeles Lakers or Denver Nuggets.
To quickly go over the personnel-based breakdown of this series without Paul and Leonard, it favors the Suns. A lot.
The Clippers rocked the Utah Jazz last round through shot-making via the likes of Paul George, Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris.
Mikal Bridges is a safe bet to start on George, and George has torched the Suns in the regular season to the tune of 32.3 points per game across the three meetings.
But the Suns have options. On top of Bridges, Cam Johnson and Torrey Craig can get into George over the course of a game.
That bunch can also do secondary work when Jae Crowder’s strength and quickness match for Morris is off the floor. Cam Payne, Booker and possibly Jevon Carter can help neutralize Jackson. And Ayton as the backline anchor that can also hang on switches in spurts is a huge asset for the Suns.
The Jazz didn’t have that type of round peg in a round hole fluidity in matchups but the Suns do.
Branching off that, the clear difference between the Suns and the Jazz is that they have players that are flat-out better and not as one-dimensional on both ends of the floor.
To start on the offensive side of the ball, when the Clippers doubled the Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Utah’s lack of off-the-bounce playmaking and Mitchell’s inability to consistently set up good looks off it was apparent.
With the way the Clippers defend, Crowder said Saturday that Los Angeles forces teams into playing more iso ball and keeping the movement down.
That’s a trap the Suns cannot fall into, because if they are able to get the Clippers’ defense into recovery mode, they will have lots of success.
In the regular season, Los Angeles’ execution there was sloppy.
Booker did well earlier in the season against doubles in the first matchup.
Like the Nuggets, the Clippers don’t have the personnel to cover him, unless George takes on that assignment. Jackson, Terance Mann, Patrick Beverley, Rajon Rondo and Luke Kennard won’t cut it so they’ll send extra bodies.
And while struggles came in the final matchup of the two teams, you can still see the quality of shots the Suns were able to produce.
The Suns are equipped to handle the challenges a switching defense presents. Head coach Monty Williams said Saturday it’s about sticking to their identity.
“For us, it’s to play the way we play. We’re a 0.5 team. We play paint to great,” he said. “You can’t hold the ball against a switching defense. The biggest key is getting stops so you can play in transition and get out and run before they can set their defense … We feel like we’ve seen it before, everybody knows your plays, you know their stuff and your spacing. Playing efficient and fast can help you in those environments.”
The Suns will need to do better than they did in the regular season.
In the three games the two teams faced off, the Suns averaged 22 assists per game and 13 turnovers. That assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.69 is nowhere near the Suns’ NBA-best 2.15, a number that has held up in the postseason at 2.08, the best of the five remaining teams.
Where things could get clunky is the biggest item on the agenda that could be a swing in the series: How Ayton is utilized and how he holds up defensively.
Los Angeles made life rough on Utah’s Rudy Gobert, but Ayton is more of a scoring threat and also far more mobile. That, however, does not mean he’s immune to being a liability still.
Where Ayton’s performance lands on the spectrum of benefit or detriment to the team against the Clippers’ small lineups will have a large impact on how the series unfolds. Ayton has performed exceptionally in his first two playoff series’, but this time instead of a key matchup like Anthony Davis or Nikola Jokic, it will simply be about him being the best version of himself.
In the one game the two teams played against each other in LA, a Suns loss, Phoenix kept trying and failing in the fourth quarter to get Ayton involved against a small-ball look from the Clippers.
That continued for four minutes of game time before Williams hit the eject button, taking Ayton out and electing to use his own five-out look.
Getting Ayton the ball in those types of situations has been one of the few rockier aspects of the Suns’ play this year, to the point early in the season where Phoenix made a choice of simplifying Ayton’s role further and giving him fewer post touches.
That’s because it’s not a necessity for the Suns to do that in order for Ayton to make his presence felt on the game.
To Crowder’s point, if Ayton stays active by running the floor and being in the right spots on the baseline, his teammates are fully capable of getting him the ball.
The Suns’ ball and player movement being where it normally is will pay dividends for him, as it did in that same game before he was pulled in crunch time.
In case of emergency, aka Ayton’s not cutting it, Craig, Crowder or even Johnson are fine against Nic Batum, Morris or whoever the unofficial “center” is for the Clippers. The Suns’ gang rebounding really got going in the Lakers series and it carried over to the sweep of the Nuggets.
The defensive end is where we’ll have to wait and see. Believe it or not, Ayton has usually been great at switching onto guards and sticking on ’em. It was the first part of his NBA game he was truly outstanding at outside of rebounding.
It became a time-honored tradition to watch perimeter players thinking they have a mismatch before Ayton engulfed any openings. Whether it’s straight-up isolation or Ayton meeting the ball-handler around the screen to move with him, he’s awesome at it compared to the average center.
Suns fans, though, will of course remember the loss to the Brooklyn Nets where Ayton was picked on relentlessly in the fourth quarter. It was rough, and Ayton looked like a shell of himself.
It’s a good argument that Ayton was just spooked by James Harden, attempting to not foul him before spiraling. But either way, he’s gonna have to be ready for the Clippers to attack him.
“DA has shown himself to be pretty good in those situations,” Williams said. “Sometimes his numbers look a little weird but from the eye test, he does a pretty good job of forcing smaller guys into tough shots.
“The one thing that we can’t do is overreact when a guy makes a tough shot over his length.”