EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns floored by Clippers’ desperation, fail to wrap up WCF at home

Jun 28, 2021, 10:16 PM | Updated: 10:42 pm
Los Angeles Clippers guard Reggie Jackson (1) celebrates a basket with teammates as Phoenix Suns gu...

Los Angeles Clippers guard Reggie Jackson (1) celebrates a basket with teammates as Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) walks to his bench during the second half of game 5 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Finals, Monday, June 28, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — Closing out a playoff series can be, at times, an agonizing process.

Some teams will refuse to go out lightly, requiring the opposition to emphatically shut the door and nail it down a few times for good measure.

That is the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Finals, a team that refused to die at the hands of the Phoenix Suns on Monday night, a 116-102 Suns loss that made it a 3-2 Phoenix lead in the series.

The Suns didn’t play like a team that expected that.

“They played with determination. We have to realize we are trying to close out a series against a team that’s been there before,” head coach Monty Williams said. “And they’re gonna claw and scratch and do whatever it takes. We have to have that mentality. I didn’t feel that in the first quarter. As the game progressed, we had it, and then they had confidence because they were making shots.”

“They hit us,” Suns point guard Chris Paul added. “They were too comfortable. We gotta be better.”

They allowed dribble penetration over and over defensively and didn’t take care of the ball offensively. The Clippers had 58 points in the paint and scored 23 points off the Suns’ 14 turnovers.

Paul finished the sentence of a reporter when they got to points off turnovers, mentioning the 23 number he was already aware of, one he called “uncharacteristic.”

The Suns had a terrible start. They were down 20-5 early, a hole they could never quite climb out of after nearly doing so four different times.

“It’s just unacceptable, the way we started the game,” Williams said. “It was a big hole for us. It’s pretty obvious that we can’t play with a show-up mentality. We showed up in the first quarter and they played with desperation. Simple and plain.”

The game for Phoenix was defined by missed opportunities.

In each quarter of the game, the Suns had an opening where the momentum was either on their side or up for grabs. Each time, Phoenix stumbled and wasn’t able to get it done, all while the Clippers snatched it back shortly after.

At the end of the first quarter, the Clippers scored only four points in the last 2:06 while the Suns were 1-of-5 from the floor for two points, all on good looks. Los Angeles’ lead was then eight.

With the Suns down seven at halftime, they began the second half on a 12-2 run to take their first lead of the game. The home crowd had its biggest roar of the night on that moment, a Chris Paul midrange jumper, and was just begging the team to extend the lead so it could explode even more.

From that point, the Clippers put together a 21-8 spurt to go back up 12. Phoenix answered with a 6-0 run, again with its fans ready to go nuts, but the Suns scored two points in the last 4:21 of the third quarter to be trailing by 13. Paul George scored 20 of his 41 points over that last 9:51 of the third quarter.

The fourth quarter had a moment too, and this was more like a section of the game as opposed to a flash of it.

The Suns got back within five after a 13-5 stretch to start the final period. The Clippers’ counter-shot back didn’t come and that allowed Cam Johnson’s and-one for the Suns to cut the deficit all the way to four with 6:58 to go.

The Clippers’ Reggie Jackson hit a three-pointer right after, George got another bucket, and following Torrey Craig’s layin, Jackson added five more. Just like that, like clockwork, the Suns were behind by 12 at 4:47 remaining.

And there would be no fifth opportunity.

The Suns’ inability to get Deandre Ayton consistently involved via the post all season came back to bite them in their most important game of the year to this point.

The Clippers were without Ivica Zubac, who had to play a career-high 40 minutes in Game 4 because of how much Ayton dominated it. They started Terance Mann in his place, making 6-foot-8 Marcus Morris the largest Clipper in the opening lineup.

Ayton recorded 10 points and 11 rebounds.

It hasn’t been in the team’s DNA to feed Ayton in that way, and it didn’t help that Ayton’s engagement levels were clearly off. Playing on stretch fives and worrying about that perimeter threat defensively almost always has goofed with him in some way.

While the Suns weren’t getting him the ball, it’s not like Ayton was sealing a smaller Clipper time after time and not receiving it, either.

Williams saw multiple bodies in Ayton’s way on diving and rebounding opportunities.

“He had an imprint on the previous game and they did a really good job of sending bodies to him tonight,” Williams said. “He’s gonna figure that out and we’re gonna show him on the film.”

Los Angeles started the game with zone defense and went to it often, a rousing success for Clippers head coach Ty Lue.

That shined through in points in the paint, an area the Clippers manhandled the Suns 58-32, a testament to how off the Suns were defensively throughout the evening.

“Guarding the ball. Simple as that,” Williams said of what plagued the Suns. “That’s universal basketball 101. You gotta be able to guard the ball. We didn’t. They hit some tough shots, we give them credit.”

Paul said what has been the case all year, in that the Suns’ offense feeds off their defense, so that’s gotta get cleaned up for various reasons.

Whatever it is about the Clippers, they are able to rattle the Suns in a way the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets never could. The Suns’ newness as a group and lack of overall playoff experience has shown consistently in the series after not being a factor at all in the first two rounds.

Game 5 extended a streak now of the Suns’ offense being unable to reach at least 30 points to 17 straight quarters. That’s after they hit that mark eight out of the 16 quarters in the Nuggets series.

And if I told you before the game that it would still hold up when Devin Booker and Paul would find their rhythm, you wouldn’t have believed me.

Booker had 31 points on 9-of-22 shooting. Paul shot 8-of-19 for 22 points.

The only other Suns player in double figures besides those two and Ayton was Cam Johnson, who scored 14 off the bench and continues to be excellent in the series. The highest scorers following those four were Cam Payne, Mikal Bridges, and Torrey Craig. They had five points each.

For the Clippers, Morris had 20 of his 22 points in the first half and DeMarcus Cousins contributed 10 of his 15 points in the first quarter.

George had 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals to go along with his playoff career-high 41 points on stellar 15-of-20 shooting. Jackson keeps impressing as well. He provided 23 points.

George’s superstar act and Jackson’s consistent scoring are contributions the Suns can take on the chin, but Morris and Cousins getting cozy early are outings they cannot.

The Suns’ resiliency and ability to bounce back after bad losses is near the top of the list for the team’s signature traits this year. It’s part of why Williams said multiple times the Suns “will” be better in Game 6.

Well, they have to be in their biggest test of that trait all year. Or else they face a Game 7, and as they say, anything can happen then.

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