EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns head into All-Star break after loss to pesky Clippers

Feb 16, 2023, 11:55 PM

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns and Mason Plumlee #44 of the LA Clippers dive for a loose ball ...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns and Mason Plumlee #44 of the LA Clippers dive for a loose ball during the second half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on February 16, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Clippers defeated the Suns 116-107. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — One of the Phoenix Suns’ defining traits in the Monty Williams era is their wear-down effect. When they get into highly competitive games, at some point in the second half, the opposition folds. The Suns had worn ’em down.

But as we learned in the 2021 Western Conference Finals, the Los Angeles Clippers are practically immune to it. Their stubbornness and knack for timely shots kept them in front the majority of Thursday night and were responsible for a 116-107 Suns loss.

The Suns were not great in this game for sure but they have had nights like this when it was enough to win a game. The Clippers weren’t having it.

Every time Phoenix made a bit of a run or got the crowd involved, Los Angeles answered. This cycle persisted for the whole game, and eventually, Phoenix just ran out of time.

After a Mason Plumlee score for the Clippers put them up nine with 10:46 left, each possession the Suns scored, L.A. did the same across four straight possessions.

A Devin Booker 14-footer at 4:51 remaining was the first time in the quarter Phoenix had a “run” and the 5-0 mark ended with buckets for Paul George and Terance Mann.

Booker scored the Suns’ next two baskets, but guess what, they were each followed by one for the Clippers. By then, there were less than two minutes on the clock and the Clippers were up eight.

Prior to that, the Suns had put up 32 points in the third quarter. The problem is they gave up 37.

The Clippers showed again why they are the best team at defending Booker. Whether it was trapping or quick-hitting doubles, they were able to get the ball out of his hands successfully and the Suns didn’t take advantage of it enough.

“Usually for us, when the double happens or the switch happens, that first pass out — we attack,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “And tonight it was first pass out and it stuck a little bit.”

There were a handful of possessions when Booker escaped an action with a 1-on-1 matchup, but as soon as he would even start to think about going downhill, a second Clipper immediately flashed toward him and forced Booker to make the right play. And when Booker did find some room, he was marked by guys like all-world defender George or another very good perimeter defender.

“I gotta look at the film but I didn’t think we were as good tonight responding to the traps,” Williams said. “Getting the ball out quick and then having guys in the right spot.”

To Williams’ point, it was the first game where I myself really noticed the absence of Mikal Bridges. Whether it’s running to the free throw line to flash the middle or making the instantaneous play off the catch Williams mentioned, Bridges was great at making the right play off Booker doubles. The other guys will have to figure that out.

This is something an opposing defense will not get away with once Kevin Durant enters the fray. Maybe they can do it every now and then. The whole game, however? Nuh-uh.

There is a delicate balance of picking your spots that Booker has borderline mastered with how in-tune he is to a game’s rhythm. For whatever reason, though, the Clippers throw him off. He wasn’t able to find those zones when he did have space.

Booker finished 6-of-16 from the field for 19 points with nine assists and five turnovers.

While Josh Okogie (24 points) and Terrence Ross (16) had great nights, Phoenix didn’t get enough from Deandre Ayton (18), Chris Paul (5) and others to make up for a so-so defensive night.

Okogie was phenomenal for the fourth straight game. He drilled a career-high six 3s and it’s going to be awfully difficult to take him out of the starting lineup.

“Unbelievable, man,” Booker said of Okogie’s play. “Just stepping up big. Teams are trying to force the ball to him (and) he’s making them pay every single time.”

Ross in his debut showed Suns fans what he is all about, flying around off-ball movement to receive the ball on the move to pull up into his midrange game. On a roster that has a few guys that will think too much when they have a bit of space to shoot, Ross never hesitates, even when the defender is nearby. This team desperately needed someone with that skill set off the bench and he’s going to fill that void perfectly.

“He’s doing what we want him to do,” Williams said of Ross. “He’s aggressive to score, he’s solid on defense. … Offensively, we feel like he’s gonna be a guy that can come off the bench and give us timely scores.”

Ross attempted 17 shots in 25 minutes, making seven.

Ayton’s scoring production was there but the Clippers’ Ivica Zubac got the better of him most of the night, a matchup Ayton normally fares extremely well with. Zubac had six of his 12 rebounds on the offensive glass while Ayton only grabbed six total.

Paul shot 2-of-8. While Durant’s implementation will ease the scoring load for Paul, the Suns will still require him to score and it can still hurt them when he has nights like this, even with Booker and Durant. Paul added 11 assists and four steals.

Mann was 10-of-12 for 26 points and George matched that point total as well. They were the two best players on the court.

The Suns now head into the All-Star break, off for six days until returning to practice on Thursday.

But if you think that means they will be “off” then you don’t really know this group.

Booker said his plan right now is to stay put in the Valley, and when asked if he will be in town early to make sure to get in extra work with a special someone (Durant), it sounded like that was in the cards.

“Yeah. Work doesn’t stop,” he said.

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