EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns-Clippers Game 6 preview: Can Phoenix fix its offense in time?

Jun 29, 2021, 9:58 PM | Updated: 10:00 pm
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) is fouled driving to the basket as Los Angeles Clippers guard P...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) is fouled driving to the basket as Los Angeles Clippers guard Patrick Beverley (21), forward Paul George (13), and guard Luke Kennard (5) defend during the first 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)

It’s fitting the Phoenix Suns will have to get to the NBA Finals playing their way, needing to get past a Los Angeles Clippers team that tests them at what they do best.

The Clippers’ various defensive looks and switching have infected the Suns’ offense. It’s got Phoenix in a rut.

Including the Game 1 outing where the Suns scored 120 points through Devin Booker’s masterpiece, Phoenix’s offensive rating for the series is 106.8, which would have ranked 28th in the regular season.

The Suns’ offense on Monday moved with indecision like the Clippers are a tick they just can’t scratch.

Los Angeles in Game 5 opened the game in zone, a way to clog up some holes without center Ivica Zubac.

As most zone defenses do, it accomplished its job in making things a little more grimy and throwing off the Suns just enough.

Through five games, we have now reached a point where Chris Paul and Booker appear unable to find a solid flow with their teammates through playmaking and court vision, which has not been the case virtually all season.

It’s a bizarre observation to make, but when watching Monday night’s Suns loss back, there was possession after possession like this one where the action completely stopped and slashed the chances of a scoring outcome.

Paul or Booker kept dribbling inside the three-point line, not finding anything and then whipping the ball out, where it would halt.

It kept happening.

Again and again.

There are a couple of ways for the possession to unfold from there. Booker or Paul could get their midrange jumper. They could also get into the teeth of the defense, either to open up a passing lane to a player on the perimeter, to try to score at the rim, or to make it easier to find Deandre Ayton for a pass.

A handful of unsuccessful trips for the Suns’ offense were like this, where the ball-handler could have driven toward Ayton to make the Clippers’ defense react in a certain way. And if Ayton doesn’t have 2-3 bodies around him, it’s a simple high pass for him to get and finish from there.

But it’s not a pass the Suns can make from 25 feet. They’ve gotta get closer to him, and they couldn’t do it.

It’s proof of what we’ve seen all year, that the only real record scratch moment in this offense is when it is trying to incorporate Ayton. There is little to no established cohesion, something they tried to do and failed at the start of the season.

Ayton needs to read these ball rotations and not allow Luke Kennard to front him.

Ayton needs to see the lane for his dive is wide open as soon as Paul attacks.

And to go over the obvious, the looming threat Ayton presents sucks in defenders to give Phoenix’s shooters open looks.

When everything is operating as normal, it looks pretty, like we’re used to.

Booker and Paul simply have to be better as well. The reason why the Suns can have a very effective offense around two guys who primarily shoot from the midrange is because, well, they are more accurate from there than just about anyone else in the league.

That has not been what’s happening in the Western Conference Finals.

Per Cleaning the Glass, Booker shot 50% from the midrange in the regular season, 48% against the Los Angeles Lakers and 57% versus the Denver Nuggets. For Paul, those numbers are 53% in the regular season, 40% in the Lakers series with the bad right shoulder and 60% for the four games taking on Denver.

In the Clippers series, Booker is at 38% and Paul’s 37% is just as bad. On Monday, Booker was 4-of-11 but Paul bounced back to 7-for-11.

With what went wrong for the Suns in Game 5 like awful defense at times and bad live-ball turnovers, their two best players just aren’t hitting enough shots.

It’s a mix of the Clippers deserving a whole lot of credit while also not being some impenetrable defensive monster that leaves little to no options for the offense. If Phoenix is just slightly above average offensively against these Clippers, they’ll beat ’em nine out of 10 times. But for whatever reason, it’s just a crummy matchup that hasn’t allowed them to get there outside of Booker’s spectacular triple-double effort in Game 1.

Booker and Paul spent their fair share of Game 5 hunting mismatches in the Clippers’ defense as well, and while that’s fine and dandy when either guy is rolling and can find someone worth seriously exploiting, the two haven’t lit any Clipper up that isn’t a center. And when the offense has no flow, it only makes things worse.

Expect to see a lot more structured, set offense from the Suns in Game 6 that lends itself to become more free-flowing, because the way they were bottled up on Monday cannot happen again on Wednesday if they want to wrap up the series.

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