Suns-Clippers Game 5 preview: Progress toward better offense
The Phoenix Suns do not seem interested in playing in a regular, standard playoff series.
Each of the three rounds has presented its own oddities. For the Western Conference Finals, the Suns are up 3-1 over the Los Angeles Clippers and one win away from the NBA Finals.
It’s safe to say they’ve been the better team so far and that the lead is deserved.
They’ve also had Devin Booker, Cam Payne and Deandre Ayton each play arguably the best game of their young careers in those three wins. If the Valley-Oop wasn’t a coined phrase by now, we’re talking about a series tied 2-2. And if the Clippers could have done, like, anything offensively in Game 4, now that alternate reality is Los Angeles instead one win away from the finals.
That, however, is not the reality we live in, but should serve as an example of how much closer this series is than meets the eye.
The Suns enter Game 5 now on a streak of 13 straight quarters without recording 30 points. In the 16 quarters of the second round against the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix reached that mark eight times, so this has been quite the offensive skid.
The Clippers have done a terrific job making this happen. With constant switching and solid help bogging down a lot of possessions, the Suns’ ball rotations to create open three-pointers aren’t nearly as open as they have been previously.
The Suns were just 1-of-6 on wide-open 3-pointers last night, and they were just 6-of-22 combined over the last three (7.3 attempts per game).
The Suns averaged 13.8 attempts per game in each of the Lakers and Nuggets series (17.8 per game in the regular season).
— Michael Gallagher (@MikeSGallagher) June 27, 2021
When head coach Monty Williams was asked on Sunday about the quality of looks Devin Booker and Chris Paul got in Game 4, he ended his answer by saying he was “hopeful that we see an offensive explosion here soon,” while mentioning the excellent defensive intensity the team showed in that game as well.
That hope adds up with the Suns’ lack of pop offensively for most of the series, and there were some encouraging signs within Game 4 in terms of some changes.
Phoenix tried to create opportunities in Saturday’s win by pushing the pace more. Williams said before the game that he thought kick-ahead passes were a good way for his team to do that, and they followed suit with some great urgency to begin Game 4.
Now, the Suns got away from this as the game went on, and that’s a tough thing to do for 48 minutes. But more tempo throughout the game should be welcomed.
Paul in the series over two games is now 11-of-41 (26.8%) from the field.
Where he saw the most success — and an adjustment from the Suns — was creating a clear-cut advantage again when attacking the Clippers’ Ivica Zubac.
This was more of what was expected right away a game prior, but Paul understandably needed a game to get himself back in order after spending 11 days in COVID-19 protocols.
All six of his field goals on Saturday were with Zubac in the action.
Shoutout to readers who caught “The Mixtape” in there.
Paul had a dramatic uptick in his drives and that’s the type of aggression the Suns need with how the Clippers have been defending them.
Chris Paul had an absurd 32 drives in Game 4. That's basically double his output in previous playoff games (16.1) and 2.7X his regular-season average (11.9).
He had 17 FGAs off those drives last night after averaging 7.2 per game in the playoffs and 4.8 in the regular season.
— Michael Gallagher (@MikeSGallagher) June 27, 2021
The hope for Phoenix will be that those shots provided enough of a jolt to Paul’s game to get him back in rhythm as a scorer ahead of Game 5.
After an all-time franchise playoff performance in Game 1, Booker is now 18-of-59 (30.5%) in his last three games of the series. Whether it’s the mask, Patrick Beverley, the Clippers’ scheme or whatever else, the bottom is line is that he’s off and the Suns will have to fight their tails off to get any wins when that’s the case.
As discussed in this space prior to Game 4, Booker used some more strong takes off the dribble on Saturday. Los Angeles is still making these very difficult for him, but the openings have been there, whether it’s at the rim or on the pull-ups.
The reason Booker has been such a consistently efficient bucket-getter over his young career is how he plays within the flow of the game and mostly avoids bad shots.
You can still see him figuring out in this series the balance between staying aggressive and getting something manageable out of a possession.
One of Booker’s best traits is that he has his playmaking to go with his outstanding shotmaking, which is what makes him a complete offensive player and able to turn nothing into something.
All four of these shots are late-clock situations, something Williams mentioned in that aforementioned answer, but Booker doesn’t get anything out of them and goes with pull-up jumpers on all four.
We know Booker is capable of producing something better in those moments, even though Beverley is there waiting on the drive in the first clip and all the helpers are looking Booker’s way in general. That’s what superstars get and overcome.
Through the Clippers’ great efforts, Booker is still contributing looks that he will like. They just aren’t going down.
That last clip, by the way, is a good example of creating a better shot off those switches when the shot clock is winding down.
As all great scorers do, Booker has been getting to the foul line during this funk. He’s 22-of-24 (91.7%) there in his last three.
The Suns need more, though, and a bounce-back effort in Game 5 from him is at the top of the list for what the Suns require on Monday to move on to the big one.