Clippers’ zone defense vs. Suns speaks to what’s kept their fight alive

Jun 29, 2021, 10:30 AM | Updated: 10:33 am
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) shoots over Los Angeles Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. duri...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) shoots over Los Angeles Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. 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 — Reminder: The Suns required a magical Valley-Oop and missed Paul George free throws to grab hold of a 3-1 series lead heading into Game 5 against the Clippers on Monday.

It was a well-earned series lead but very much unlike either of Phoenix’s first two previous playoff matchups.

“The whole thing, it’s not like we’ve been getting blown out,” Clippers wing Paul George said Monday after his team won, 116-102. “It not like we have been outmatched. Game 2, we lost on a tip jam. Game 4, we couldn’t score to close the game out. It’s not like we’re that far off.”

The Suns’ second Los Angeles opponent of the postseason very much deserves credit for junking up Phoenix’s gameplan in Game 5.

More than any other game so far this series, the Clippers went to a zone defense that served them so well against the Utah Jazz in the conference semifinals. They used it to throw a haymaker in the first quarter, building a 20-5 lead that Phoenix couldn’t overcome.

Yes, the Clippers, regardless of who’s been on the floor or which defense they’ve played, have sat defenders on the elbows on pick-and-rolls, taking away Chris Paul’s and Devin Booker’s favorite mid-range shots. To a decent degree, they’ve gotten enough backside help to keep Deandre Ayton from going off.

Without center Ivica Zubac (MCL sprain) on Monday, a perimeter-oriented team scrambled and talked and challenged Ayton from getting clean catches, while still chasing shooters out of too many corner threes.

It was the same formula that the Clippers used effectively to come back from a 2-0 series deficit against the Jazz — an elite three-point shooting team also with a rim-running center in Rudy Gobert.

How they stopped Ayton, Paul and Booker on Monday comes down to effort, help and communication.

The best example came early on in the first quarter.

We can argue about what to call this amoeba of a matchup zone defense.

It takes pure zone elements but also flashes of man-to-man. Players are allowed to follow their man and take control of a new area of the court, but handing assignments off with lots of pointing and lots of yapping kept the Suns off-kilter about what passing windows could open up.

Watch Nicolas Batum in the GIF above.

He starts off in the right corner, watching Mikal Bridges. When Bridges flashes under the hoop to the strong side, Batum passes the threat off to the opposite-corner defender. But when Booker flashes through Batum’s area just after, the veteran knows the numbers across the floor. Batum follows Booker through as three defenders up top quickly file through changing their own assignments. Now Batum is on the opposite corner he started out on.

But by the end of the play, the Clippers’ handling of a basic pick-and-roll quite frankly looks like their usual man-to-man coverage.

People who watch a lot of basketball aren’t quite sure what they’re seeing.

Is this below a breakdown with Patrick Beverley chasing Booker over a screen? Does he think he’s in man? Is he just late handing Booker off to another player?

I tend to think he knows he’s in a zone but freelances a little too much to keep a body between passer and cutter. Then there’s Reggie Jackson behind him keeping things covered between the cutter and the hoop. Whatever the case, the Clippers recover and talk it out in real time just fine.

Again, lots of pointing and yelling and handing things off. There are probably tons of rules involved, and rules are hard!

Lots of Suns fans, somewhat fairly, wondered why Ayton wasn’t more involved. Williams avoided throwing his big man under the bus, saying the Clippers threw multiple bodies at him.

It’s true to a large degree. Again, the risk-taking and flashing into passing lanes got the Suns to second-guess things.

With Marcus Morris Sr. effectively manning the center spot, there was a major size advantage for the Suns. But Los Angeles will take cutting off elbow jumpers in pick-and-rolls while also keeping a body — small as they might be — in the restricted area between Ayton and the bucket. Their help defenders also are well-placed to challenge passers and shooters alike.


To be honest, you could sell the play above — which came 30 seconds after the very first clip of this story — as man-to-man defense. Or was it?

The Clippers were flat making the Suns think too much.

As smart basketball people said, the Suns could probably just run their usual stuff.

That’s a little simplistic. But the point is this: For the first time this playoff run, a team has gotten them to play unlike themselves.

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