EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Clippers proved capable of adjusting on the fly in Game 1 vs. Suns

Jun 21, 2021, 10:46 AM | Updated: 5:57 pm

Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns slam dunks the ball past Paul George #13 of the LA Clippers d...

Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns slam dunks the ball past Paul George #13 of the LA Clippers during the second half of game one of the Western Conference Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena on June 20, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Clippers 120-114. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Former Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers took heat from former NBA player Josh Smith and, likely, Philadelphia fans at large late Sunday night as his Sixers fell in Game 7 to the Atlanta Hawks.

His reputation of failing to adjust in the middle of a playoff series only grew upon a disappointing 76ers exit against an upstart team.

Hours earlier, Rivers’ successor on the Clippers, head coach Ty Lue, didn’t wait a single game to make an adjustment.

Out of halftime, Los Angeles went away from small-ball against the Phoenix Suns before falling 120-114 in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

While the Suns’ win without point guard Chris Paul suggests they are very real, Devin Booker’s 40-point triple-double perhaps overshadowed the fact that the Clippers again flashed the ability to make changes on the fly and for the better.

That is, after all, how Los Angeles overcame 2-0 deficits in each of the first two playoff rounds — against Dallas and Utah — to get here.

In Game 1 against Phoenix, the Clippers started Ivica Zubac in the second half as Marcus Morris dealt with a knee issue. That and a few schematic changes helped quiet down the production by Suns center Deandre Ayton, who went 7-of-8 for 14 points in the first half but only finished with 20 points overall.

“That’s going to be the challenge. You know, like I said, it’s different, Ayton is a little bit more agile, a little bit more of a presence down low, better finisher than the bigs we faced,” Clippers wing Paul George said, maybe inadvertently throwing shade at Jazz center Rudy Gobert.

“So it’s going to be a challenge. That’s definitely what we’ve got to work on.”

Ayton was not force-fed in the post against the small-ball Clippers, who to start the game used wings Morris, George, Nicolas Batum and Terance Mann in the starting lineup.

Ayton got a putback to open the Suns’ scoring but from there found easy dunks and layups out of Phoenix’s perimeter-oriented actions.

“It kind of goes back to, it was a lot of situations where we over-helped, myself in particular,” backup center DeMarcus Cousins said. “You know, we gave him that naked role down the middle. They keep the floor spread.

“They use the pick-and-roll to suck guys in, and we just have to do a better job of being in our rotations and not over-helping and being in the correct spot. Like I said, we will adjust and plan on having a better showing.”

Zubac, one of the most physical centers in the game, clogged more of the paint in the second half. Lue had his team over-helping less, and aside from a few semi-transition looks where Ayton scored on dump-offs against a rotating defense, Los Angeles showed well against him.

“… Our bigs come and help, we were not getting crack-back guys,” Lue said of the first-half problems. “So we were getting a lot of little layups and dunks in the middle of the paint because we didn’t commit fully to hit him and take him out and exit on the back side. We’ll watch the tape and we’ll watch the film and see what we need to do better.”

Indeed, it was a good sign for Los Angeles that some mid-game tweaks helped clog the paint for Ayton in the second half.

The Clippers took a six-point lead late in the third-quarter, and briefly it felt like they had sniffed out Phoenix’s best offense.

But that’s when Booker turned up his aggression to superstar levels. Once Los Angeles responded to that in the fourth by flipping into the double-team mode, Booker’s Suns teammates began showing up big.

How does Los Angeles find the right scheme or balance in keeping Booker off-kilter? That’s not an easy answer.

Still, it would be asking a lot for Booker to keep up that flawless production.

That’s why, after Game 1, it felt like we could see a prolonged series, regardless of Paul’s availability moving forward. At the least, we should see a more competitive one, even against a Clippers squad down an MVP-caliber player in Kawhi Leonard.

“I expect us to get better as the series goes,” George said. “We’ve been great at it. It’s nothing to kind of panic over right now. You know, we were down Kawhi. We’re playing with a banged-up Marcus. Yeah, they don’t have Chris Paul either, but it’s a game of adjustments.

“We’ll figure out what we need to do better. But good thing about it, we expect a long series, and all they did was win one game.”

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