Suns ‘outplayed’ by Clippers in 1st loss of Western Conference Finals

Jun 24, 2021, 11:05 PM | Updated: Jun 25, 2021, 12:08 pm

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, right, passes while under pressure from Los Angeles Clippers guard T...

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, right, passes while under pressure from Los Angeles Clippers guard Terance Mann during the first half in Game 3 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Finals Thursday, June 24, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

LOS ANGELES — With the way the Phoenix Suns’ All-Star duo normally responds to big moments, it was hard to imagine a playoff game where both Chris Paul and Devin Booker would play poorly.

Sure, maybe one of them is off or maybe the duo is slightly below average, but the two of them each performing badly?

Well, the Los Angeles Clippers made that seemingly unfeasible event a reality on Thursday night, a 106-92 Suns loss that now has Phoenix up 2-1 in the Western Conference Finals.

Booker (5-of-21) and Paul (5-of-19) combined to shoot 10-of-40 (25.0%) from the field. Per Elias Sports, that’s tied for the third-worst FG% by a starting backcourt in the past 50 postseasons.

After the Suns rattled off nine straight wins, that’s quite the way for them to lose their first game in nearly a month.

Paul shot worse than his 26.3 FG% from Thursday only four times in the regular season. In those four games, Booker didn’t dip below 45% and his totals added up to 37-for-67 (55.2%).

Booker’s 23.8 FG% in Game 3 ties his lowest number from the regular season. Go back two more seasons and you’d still only reach four total games he’s been at or below that bar.

This hasn’t really happened for the backcourt before outside of a win against the Miami Heat in mid-April when Booker was 4-for-16 (25.0%) and Paul was 2-of-7 (28.6%).

The ultra-rare occurrence had some contributing factors.

Booker was playing with a mask for the first time since fracturing his nose, while Paul returned from COVID-19 protocols after missing the series’ first two games.

They didn’t use those excuses, as you’d expect.

Booker said his nose and the mask on it felt OK.

“It’s fine honestly,” he said. “I honestly don’t really see it or it doesn’t affect me.”

When Booker was asked if he liked the way he was able to get to his spots, he said he thought so, after acknowledging he wants to see the game back to be sure.

Paul said outside of briefly messing around on the basketball court at his home, he did just about nothing for the last 10 days while under the league’s protocols.

Suns head coach Monty Williams thought he played Paul (39 minutes) a bit too much, which had partially to do with an injury to Cam Payne in the first quarter. Williams and Booker thought Paul was catching his wind a bit.

He didn’t mention it, though, of course.

“They just outplayed us tonight. We didn’t make shots, you could tell they had a lot more energy,” Paul said. “And I gotta be better. I shot terrible. I gotta pick up the pace.”

Paul mentioned the one thing that was better was his nerves, which were a wreck watching the first two games of the series from home.

The struggles for the two began from the jump. Neither player recorded a field goal until a Clippers turnover early in the second quarter set up Booker for a corner 3. That was after he and Paul went a combined 0-for-9.

At the time, it was looking like a ginormous missed opportunity for the Clippers, who were having their own issues offensively.

Los Angeles shot 40.9% in the first quarter and 31.6% in the second. It felt inevitable that at least one of Booker or Paul would get going, and we did briefly see that. Each of them scored seven of their 15 points in the second quarter and that helped spark the Suns to a two-point lead at halftime.

But after the break, it was clear which team came out with the right mindset and style of play to take control of a game fully up for grabs.

The Clippers outscored the Suns 34-21 in the third quarter, and that 13 points were the most the Suns had lost a quarter by in the entire postseason.

“They came out in the third quarter and just brought it,” Williams said of the Clippers. “Our guys were talking about their level of play in the timeouts, and everybody knew it, we just didn’t match their force.”

That energy from Los Angeles rattled the Suns. They were 6-of-19 (31.6%) from the floor in the third quarter with five turnovers.

An 11-point edge for LA entering the fourth quarter ballooned to 18 shortly after, but a 12-0 Suns run got the deficit down to six points with 7:13 to go. It was suddenly a new ball game, but Phoenix’s errors from earlier crept back.

Booker had a three-pointer blocked and Paul missed a step-back 3. On the other end, Reggie Jackson scored five straight to get the Clippers’ lead back up to 11.

After a timeout by Williams, Booker didn’t convert on a pull-up jumper, Paul’s timing with Ayton on a lob was off and Booker missed a touch-shot runner on the baseline.

The Clippers weren’t scoring either, but when Jae Crowder fouled out 29 seconds after that Booker attempt, that’s when the game felt over even though there was still 4:51 remaining.

Two-and-a-half minutes later, it was. Reggie Jackson had another five-point spurt and then Patrick Beverley’s three-pointer put the Suns down 16 with 2:20 to go.

It was the same story from Phoenix for Los Angeles in terms of offensive production, with Paul George and Jackson leading the charge. George had a game-high 27 points, along with 15 rebounds, eight assists and six turnovers on 9-for-26 shooting. Jackson added 23 points on a more efficient 9-for-17 shooting output.

The difference was Ivica Zubac, who contributed 15 points and 16 rebounds. Six of those boards were on the offensive glass, and while those all weren’t on Deandre Ayton with the job Ayton has to do defensively in other places, Zubac was the better interior presence in Game 3.

The Suns’ field goal percentage of 38.9% is a playoff-low. Williams said his team wasn’t “sound at all” offensively, a notable statement given how great the Suns have been there for the last month-plus. It was a 10-of-32 (31.3%) mark from three-point range that didn’t help matters.

Those numbers will be harder to improve if Payne can’t play in Game 4 on Saturday. He was ruled out for the second half because of a left ankle issue, and Paul himself said it stood out how well the team was playing with Payne’s pace in the first two games.

Maybe you can talk yourself into that being a concerning loss for the Suns given the expected desperation the Clippers played with down 2-0, an area Williams thought his team was unable to match Los Angeles in.

But it’s hard to get past the simplicity of the Suns’ two best players having extreme off nights under irregular circumstances in a way they hadn’t all season. And it shouldn’t be more complicated than that.

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