EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Flat-footed Suns defense gets diced up by Clippers in Game 5

Jun 28, 2021, 10:28 PM | Updated: Jun 29, 2021, 7:22 am
Paul George #13 of the LA Clippers drives against Jae Crowder #99 of the Phoenix Suns during the se...
Paul George #13 of the LA Clippers drives against Jae Crowder #99 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half in Game Five of the Western Conference Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena on June 28, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — If you give a bogged down, limited offense straight line drives and free space to maneuver, its players’ confidence will grow.

If you allow that team to shoot 55% and can’t get into transition offense because there aren’t enough stops, things can spiral for yourself — especially for an offense that builds its own momentum with defensive stops.

And if you take bad shots or turn the ball over with a stuttering halfcourt offense, it leads to even more easy buckets in transition going the other way.

All of the above happened to the Phoenix Suns in their 116-102 Game 5 home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, which pulled the road team within 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals series.

“It’s just unacceptable the way we started the game,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of his team, which allowed 66% shooting in the first quarter. “It’s pretty obvious we can’t play with a show-up mentality.

“Guarding the ball (was an issue), simple as that. That’s basketball, universal 101. They had 58 points in the paint. That’s not something you would have expected, especially with them not having (center Ivica) Zubac tonight.”

Paul George led the way for the Clippers, scoring 41 points on 15-of-20 shooting to go with 13 boards and six assists.

Twenty of those points came in a third quarter in which he found a rhythm with his jumper, but that the Clippers led the Suns for all but 20 seconds despite him taking that long to feel out Phoenix was also a problem.

“He was getting to his spots, making shots,” Suns point guard Chris Paul said of George. “Twin and Reggie (Jackson) got it going early, gave ’em a chance to settle into the game.”

Los Angeles seemed satisfied early on to go switch-hunting to get Devin Booker onto the aforementioned twin, former Sun Marcus Morris Sr., and attacking via isolation postups.

When it was the bench’s turn, the Clippers went at undersized Suns big man Dario Saric with the larger DeMarcus Cousins. He scored 10 first-half points and closed with 15.

“Him having 15 points off the bench was a huge spark for us to allow PG and Reggie to get some rest and Marcus to get some rest,” Clippers coach Ty Lue said. “Kind of play through Cousins and he was great.”

Yes, the offense was running through DeMarcus Cousins in the year 2021.

But the Suns’ problems were plenty broader than letting the Clippers run 1990s offense despite a very 2020s rotation.

“I think they spaced us out well in their small-ball lineup, which opened the paint,” said Booker, who scored 31 points to lead the Suns. “We still have to guard with five people. … We have to show bodies and help each other out out there.”

Phoenix’s own offensive hiccups led to 14 turnovers and 23 points off of them.

Los Angeles outscored its opponent 19-8 in transition by preying off miscues or long rebounds.

The Suns gobbled up just three offensive boards as the Clippers, down Zubac and playing five-out small-ball, sent double-teams on box-outs and beautifully hedged and flashed and at least made the Suns fear throwing it into passing lanes.

With that, Deandre Ayton scored just 10 points.

“From the eye test it just looked like they sent two bodies to keep (Ayton) off the glass tonight,” Williams said.

The flying Clippers bodies appeared before Ayton had a chance to catch passes on rim-runs — or a chance to board a teammate’s miss.

There were more bad passes like this, and it allowed Morris on a bum knee to hold his own against the much larger Ayton:

The Clippers made Booker and Paul work. The Suns’ All-Stars found some rhythm in the mid-range, but just to get tough looks.

Los Angeles moreso clamped starting forwards Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder, who scored nine combined points in the midst of doing little to dissuade George on the other end. Still, the Suns shot 45% and got to the foul stripe 20 times to 15 for Los Angeles.

The defense was the bigger concern.

Phoenix even for a bit went to bench wings Torrey Craig and Abdel Nader, as Williams went searching for a little juice and maybe fresher legs.

“(Fifty-eight) points in the paint,” Booker said of the Clippers. “… A lot of straight line drives and no help at the same time.”

Added Williams: “That’s paramount on my mind. We got to play with much more force and competitive edge, and we have to guard the ball.”

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