DAN BICKLEY

Suns will not have to manufacture desperation in Game 4 of WCF

Jun 24, 2021, 9:46 PM | Updated: Jun 25, 2021, 8:37 am
Patrick Beverley #21 of the LA Clippers knocks the ball from the hands of Devin Booker #1 of the Ph...
Patrick Beverley #21 of the LA Clippers knocks the ball from the hands of Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half in game three of the Western Conference Finals at Staples Center on June 24, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Desperation doesn’t hide. You know when it walks inside a basketball arena. Unmatched, it can tilt a playing field.

The Suns learned the hard way on Thursday night. They lost their first game since May 27 by playing a most dangerous game. They were a team that lacked energy and tempo. Their offense was stripped of rhythm and ball movement. It featured some of the worst shooting we’ve seen in some time.

A psychological shift in the series? We’ll see. But the Clippers are still without superstar Kawhi Leonard and they just beat a team returning Chris Paul from a lengthy absence.

No one said this was going to be easy. But in the early moments of Game 3, the Staples Center crowd featured very little energy. In-game arena hosts implored the audience to contribute. The building felt benign and short on faith. And the Suns took advantage of none of it.

Head coach Monty Williams spotted his team’s tepid demeanor early, informing them during a timeout that their lack of desperation was unacceptable.

“Look, it was typical playoff desperation,” Williams said. “We didn’t play with the desperation necessary to win a game like that consistently. That’s how I would sum it up.”

Some of the struggles were understandable. The Suns hadn’t played or practiced with their legendary point guard in 10 days. And Paul was not sharp, missing 14 of 19 shots. After Cam Payne went down with an ankle injury in the first half, playing only four total minutes, it was clear that Paul was also gassed from his long layoff.

“They just outplayed us tonight,” Paul said. “We didn’t make shots. You could tell they had a lot more energy. I’ve got to be better. I shot terrible. You know what I mean? I’ve got to pick up the pace.”

Paul will be much better in Game 4, guaranteed.

“I thought I played him too much and he probably got tired,” Williams said.

The bigger issue is Devin Booker, who has two major problems after Game 3. His performance suggested he was extremely uncomfortable wearing a mask to protect his damaged nose. At times, he hijacked the offense while looking to jumpstart his own game. After a historic triple-double in Game 1, he is 10-for-37 from the field in the past two games.

“I thought the ball stuck too much,” Williams said. “We didn’t move it around the gym.”

The harassing Patrick Beverley is also in his face, if not his head.

Beverley is a disruptive defensive force. He’s been described as a bag of bees. He’s stripped Booker of the ball on numerous occasions in the past two games, and in the alpha male world of the NBA, that can be somewhat emasculating, introducing a lot of stress and anxiety inside the Suns offense.

The Booker-Beverley dynamic was best illustrated late in the contest, just as the Suns were making their strongest run of the game. After cutting the deficit to 89-83, the Suns forced a turnover. Booker went up for a shot from the deep corner. And Beverley stripped the ball before Booker could release his shot, nodding his head in victory as the Clippers sprinted the other way, scoring in transition.

That play was the stake in the heart.

“It’s hard to say,” Williams said of the matchup. “Patrick is a really good defender. We know that. But there were times when Book just missed the shot.”

Booker was typically stoic after the game, saying his nose “felt fine.” He insisted the mask wasn’t an issue, and that he leaned on advice from former Pistons star Richard “Rip” Hamilton. He also discounted the effect that Beverley should have on this series.

“He’s ultra-aggressive,” Booker said. “He’s denying, limiting touches. He has one objective out there and we understand that. I feel like other things should open (on the court). We need to look at the film, see what’s open and see what we can get.”

The Suns had a chance to win their 10th consecutive playoff game, a feat that has been topped by only six teams in NBA history. They could’ve taken a 3-0 series lead in the Western Conference Finals, a precipice from which no NBA opponent has ever survived.

Now, the momentum has shifted. Paul George was suddenly making half-court shots and blowing kisses to the crowd. The Clippers survived their previous two playoffs series after facing similar 0-2 deficits, and they left the court like a very confident basketball team. Meanwhile, Payne’s ankle injury threatens to be another shot of adversity.

That’s how fast things can change in the NBA playoffs. But this much is certain:

The Suns will not have to manufacture desperation in Game 4. Not after awakening the comeback Clippers.

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