Phoenix Suns’ latest win in clutch comes through defense vs. Clippers
PHOENIX — Yes, the shooting percentages are nuts for the Phoenix Suns’ two stars in crunch time.
But the team’s bonkers plus-minus numbers across clutch minutes, time in which the score is within five points with under five minutes left, has just as much to do with defense as it does offense.
The biggest play of Tuesday’s 103-96 win over the Los Angeles Clippers put a spotlight on that.
With four minutes left and the Suns up two, Phoenix guard Devin Booker rotated to the corner as the ball arrived to the Clippers’ Luke Kennard. Booker got right into the shooter, and since the pass sent Kennard in the literal corner, he didn’t have anywhere to go.
Kennard tossed the ball back to the top of the key, where Jae Crowder put himself close enough to Los Angeles’ Reggie Jackson to get a piece of the pass and begin the fastbreak.
Booker began a full-court dead sprint from that corner, eventually catching up and going past his teammates to find a Chris Paul lob pass waiting for him.
“The energy that he has is just uncommon,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of Booker. “To be able to do that and then take off down the floor and catch a lob like that, I thought that was a signature play for us. It was our defense manufacturing our offense for us.”
That put Phoenix back up five, the biggest its lead had got in the fourth quarter since its starters came back into the game.
There was still 3:42 left on the clock but that was a giant momentum swing in the game, and two minutes later, another Crowder steal with 1:01 left led to a Mikal Bridges 3 set up by Paul to increase the edge to seven and kill the game off.
Crowder’s name goes on that steal but Paul deserves just as much credit for forcing Los Angeles’ Reggie Jackson into an akwward pass.
That little bit of extra energy and effort is what the Suns do better than anyone else. And time after time, it makes a real difference.
Booker and Paul combined to shoot 3 of 6 in the clutch, which is actually below their season percentages of 66.7% and 56.4%, respectively. But it didn’t matter, because the Suns’ defense still performed at the level it had all year.
Phoenix after Tuesday now produces 136.6 points per 100 possessions in clutch minutes, the league’s top offensive rating. Its defensive rating, though, is 90.1 in those 80 clutch minutes, also the No. 1 number in the NBA. The Suns are now +93 in those 80 minutes.
“Book was in the huddle saying, ‘Aight, under five minutes. Y’all know what time it is,'” Paul said of the game’s timeout with 4:55 left, attributing the clutch success to confidence on defense and offense.
Williams shouted out Crowder’s defense as a difference-maker on Tuesday in a game where the Clippers’ highest point total for a quarter was 26.
“Jae was unreal with his defense,” Williams said. “The ability to get his hands on balls. … That last steal he got was indicative of how he played defensively all night.”
Williams, though, made sure to shout out everyone on that end too. Phoenix’s greatest strength on defense is that it does not have a weak link. All five guys do their work and don’t skip steps.
“I think that’s what separates us from most of the other teams is not just doing it sometimes but doing it consistently,” Booker said.
Booker scored a game-high 26 points on 11-of-19 shooting with three rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block. It was a flashback to the late 2010s with Booker getting trapped and setting up his teammates, only for them to not convert on the shots to get him the assist. He could have had 10-plus.
“The decision-making and just understanding the spacing. … I’ve always said that about Book,” Williams said of Booker’s playmaking. “He can be aggressive and get his own shot but he also understands the we-score mentality that we’ve all implemented.”
Crowder had a very Crowder box score, a line of five points, six rebounds, an assist, three steals and a block that does not come close to articulating the overall impact he had on the game.
Through an evening that presented Western Conference Finals vibes due to the Clippers’ switching defense getting the Suns’ offense stuck in mud, Mikal Bridges contributed a big-time 12 of his 19 points in a third quarter that ended the see-saw and put the Suns in the driver’s seat.
Phoenix used that to hold a nine-point lead entering the fourth quarter, one that Williams started with an all-reserve lineup of Elfrid Payton, Aaron Holiday, Cam Johnson, Torrey Craig and JaVale McGee. That group went +4 in the second quarter, a welcome surprise to give Paul and Booker some rest, but spiraled to a -6 across two-and-a-half fourth quarter minutes before Williams was forced to bring Paul back in.
Payton was great in the first half bur struggled to find his flow within the offense for his next go, as the offense relied a bit too much on a two-man game around McGee instead of its usual rhythm predicated upon ball and player movement.
Holiday was terrific, making a half-dozen energy plays that ranged from blowing up an off-ball screen action for a turnover to successfully contesting transition opportunities at the rim, to attacking a closeout to find McGee for a lob.
“Everybody keeps saying we got a Holiday, so you already know what it is,” Paul said of Holiday and his two other brothers in the NBA, Jrue and Justin. “They hoop, play hard, defend, great teammates.”
Aaron Holiday finished with three points, two rebounds and two assists in 11 minutes.
Paul wound up with 14 assists to go along with 17 points, the Point God’s 14th game this season serving out at least 14 dimes. The next closest player has just six outings, per Stathead.
Marcus Morris was the top scorer for the Clippers with 23 points. If it feels like he has always killed the Suns in the Footprint Center, your spidey senses are not malfunctioning. Tuesday marked Morris’ ninth regular season game with the opposition in Phoenix since the Suns traded him to Detroit in 2015, and Morris has scored at least 16 points in all those games.