Bickley: The Clippers are like a fungus that won’t go away
This is how disappointment tastes. This is how failure feels.
This is how trouble starts.
The Suns were playing inside a tinderbox. All they had to do was strike the match.
Instead, they poured buckets of cold water on what could’ve been the Valley’s greatest basketball triumph in 28 years.
They lost an opportunity to clinch their third Western Conference Championship in team history, falling to a shorthanded Clippers team that was missing star Kawhi Leonard and big man Ivica Zubac. A Clippers team that still found a way to beat, troll and mock the hosts.
“It’s just unacceptable the way we started the game,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “It was a big hole for us. (It’s) pretty obvious that we can’t play with the show-up mentality. We showed up in the first quarter. And they played with desperation, simple and plain.”
This was an embarrassing display of laziness and immaturity. So much that Suns fans began streaming out of the arena with 1:56 remaining in the game, with their team trailing by 14 points.
So what’s going on here?
On the brink of elimination, the Clippers were fueled by defiance and the star qualities of Paul George, who demolished the Suns with 41 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. Marcus Morris Sr. torched his former team in the first half. Boogie Cousins rebounded with an impact performance, helping the Clippers score 58 points in the paint.
On the doorstep of the NBA Finals, the Suns offered up a sluggish, sloppy performance that makes you wonder who stole their offense.
“They hit us,” Chris Paul said. “They were too comfortable. We’ve got to be better.”
Paul has not been the same player since returning from a 10-day absence in COVID-19 quarantine. At times, he looks sluggish and slow. Devin Booker performed much better with a mask in Game 5, but struggled with turnovers and the occasional bouts of hero ball. After his most dominant game of the season, Deandre Ayton seemed to be an afterthought on offense. Meanwhile, Abdel Nader continued his very strange re-emergence after three months of inactivity.
After Torrey Craig’s stellar contributions down the stretch, there must be more to this story.
“It’s on all of us,” Booker said. “They came out and they punched us in the face to start the game.”
Maybe this was playoff inexperience rearing its ugly head. After their gritty triumph in Los Angeles over the weekend, the Suns looked and sounded like a team that had finally crossed a threshold. Except they haven’t won anything just yet. And their offense hasn’t looked in synch since their Game 1 triumph.
There is also something about this Clippers team that is making this series excruciating. They know how to disrupt the Suns offense. They rolled out a zone defense on Monday. At times, they are all fingers and the Suns are all buttons. Patrick Beverley even undercut Paul, and then mocked him for his flopping tendencies.
Some opponents are a nuisance. The Clippers are like a fungus that won’t go away.
Still, this shouldn’t be so difficult. Not when Clippers are missing one of their marquee players. Not when the Suns had a rabid crowd on their side in Game 5, only to unplug the energy by spending most of the night playing uphill and chasing deficits.
“(The Clippers) played with determination,” Williams said. “We have to realize we’re trying to close out a series against a team that has been there before. And they’re going to claw and scratch and do whatever it takes. We have to have that mentality.”
It’s astonishing this needed another reminder.
The Suns had an opportunity to do something very special on Monday. They could’ve secured a Finals berth and nine days of rest and recuperation.
Now, they have opened a window of hope for the Clippers, a team that is starting to resemble a horror film serial killer. The kind you have to kill a few times until it’s actually over.