EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns impose will on glass with shots not falling, work past Clippers

Jan 6, 2022, 11:47 PM

PHOENIX — Perhaps the best part of the Phoenix Suns’ identity is that they can match just about any style.

If a defensive-minded team initiates a low-scoring rock fight, they are game.

That was the case for Thursday’s 106-89 Suns win over the Los Angeles Clippers.

“We’ve had so much thrown at us,” head coach Monty Williams said of his team’s ability to do that. “It gives you a chance to grow as a team.”

Los Angeles (19-20) shot 36.0% and Phoenix (30-8) wasn’t all that better at 41.1%. Chris Paul and Devin Booker didn’t have their shotmaking going, so with all those misses clanging off rims, they got to work on creating extra possessions.

Paul grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds to help him get his 17th career triple-double, and Booker had his seventh career double-digit rebounding game with 10. The Suns were +14 as a team with 21 offensive rebounds. The starting guard duo grabbed three offensive rebounds each and eight of Phoenix’s 10 rotation players on the night had at least one.

Jalen Smith snagged eight of his own and had a total of 14 boards to go with 19 points for his third double-double in the last five games. Phoenix won the battle of second-chance points 28-8.

After a 21-20 first quarter that provided an indication that shots weren’t going to be dropping as frequently, the Suns’ bench opened the second quarter on a 17-2 run that charged Phoenix to lead by as many as 19 points.

But as we learned in the Western Conference Finals, this is a very resilient Clippers squad, even without key names like Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Luke Kennard and Ivica Zubac.

Los Angeles hung around instead of letting the game get out of reach, eventually breaking down the deficit to three with 8:35 left. That margin held for the next few minutes until Paul drilled a 3 with a little over five minutes remaining.

From there, a Cam Johnson miss was rebounded by Paul, who found Johnson on a cut a few seconds later. Following another Clippers miss, Paul assisted Smith for a dunk, a 7-0 run over 90 seconds that pretty much wrapped things up.

Through all that, the Suns’ defense stayed consistent.

“The thing that I was excited about, happy about (is) we didn’t allow missing shots to affect our defense,” Williams said.

The Suns only had 22 assists but the Clippers checked in even fewer at 20, telling numbers that inform us 1) guys were missing and 2) good defense was there all night.

Johnson scored a career-high 24 points.

He’s now landed in double digits for 18 straight games after previously not having a streak above three in his career and has made at least two 3-pointers in 21 consecutive outings. Johnson is averaging 15.6 points per game across those last 18 appearances and shooting a blistering 48.8% from deep.

Even though Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder and JaVale McGee all cleared health and safety protocols, they will still have to ramp up their conditioning and did not play Thursday. But with that said, their presence on the bench alone is a huge plus, and you can bet those three were thrilled to be out of isolation and around people again.

Crowder came over to Williams at a certain point to remind the coach of a zone-busting scheme the Suns turn to rarely, a look Williams had forgotten given everything that goes on during a game. Ayton and McGee were encouraging Smith and Bismack Biyombo all night while also pointing out what they were seeing.

“It was pretty cool,” Williams said of that presence. “When I was away from the huddle in timeouts, I’d look back and it looked like 50 people in our huddle tonight because everybody was so crowded next to my seat.”

Paul called them “extra coaches” on the bench. Johnson said it was weird the last couple of games to huddle up pregame before going on the court and having so few bodies around.

Reserve guards Elfrid Payton and Cam Payne were instrumental in that second-quarter spurt that allowed the Suns to control the game from that point on.

Payne had 10 points, five rebounds and four assists while Payton contributed six points and was a game-high +23.

Payton spent seven seasons in the NBA as an on-ball guard, and out of necessity, the Suns have used him as a secondary option off the ball. Through a struggle to figure out that new role, Payton has always brought it defensively and was able to see his buckets come a bit naturally against the Clippers.

“He’s made a big-time adjustment for the sake of the team and that’s something that doesn’t go over my head,” Williams said, noting how Payton’s attitude has remained positive. “I really appreciate that.”

Booker couldn’t get a touch shot to go all night and finished 5-of-22 from the field for 11 points. That 22.7% efficiency marks just the fifth time in the last three seasons that he’s shot under 25% in a game.

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