Phoenix Suns fail to find stability, execution in loss to Clippers

Apr 16, 2023, 10:14 PM | Updated: Apr 17, 2023, 8:22 am

PHOENIX — How much do the Phoenix Suns still need to learn how to play with each other?

It is a question we didn’t really know the answer to until the postseason started, and a 115-110 Game 1 loss versus the Los Angeles Clippers provided the answer. A lot. They need to learn a lot.

We knew without Paul George and with this type of talent deficit that the Clippers were going to get creative schematically and the tricks started right away. What Los Angeles did through its concepts was turn this less into a game about talent and instead dared the Suns to out-execute it. If that was still a wash, it would come down to effort.

Los Angeles did far more in the latter two areas and also had the best star performance via 38 points, five rebounds and five assists from Kawhi Leonard on Sunday.

Leonard defended Deandre Ayton, leaving Suns ball-handlers having to get Leonard switched onto them if Ayton was to continue his role as the every-possession screener, both on and off the ball.

Now, there’s an argument to be made that Phoenix should welcome this and take a crack at just wearing down Leonard and get Ayton the ball for mismatches. Suns head coach Monty Williams even hinted at this after the fact. But instead, surprise starter Torrey Craig turned into the predominant screener so Phoenix could still go at the drop coverage of Clippers center Ivica Zubac.

Craig did very well in the role with 22 points.

“He scored tonight which is great but I still think we have to take advantage of DA’s size in those situations and have him screen,” Williams said of it. “He’s got a small guy on him and then he’s screening a smaller guy so if they want to put that guy on DA we can throw it on him or see if they help on the second side.”

“He did great in it,” Devin Booker said of Craig. “Just playing in that pocket. If teams are gonna play him like that, put 5s on him, then he can just do like that. He played unbelievable tonight on both ends.”

Phoenix had a terrible opening 18 minutes, looking disconnected on both ends and unable to properly function enough to execute what it was trying to accomplish, all while getting outworked.

After trailing by as many as 16, it rallied through sloppy but productive energy to somehow trail by just five at halftime.

The results were pretty good by the mid-second quarter, but altering the offensive shape in that way by placing Ayton in the dunker’s spot — on the baseline around the basket — successfully ruined the Suns’ flow to start the game.

Kevin Durant was scoreless in the first quarter for just the second of his 156-game playoff career, per Stathead. At the half, Phoenix was 3-of-15 on midrange shots outside of 15 feet, according to Cleaning the Glass. It had attempted only eight 3s.

The Suns were down six early in the third quarter before a 14-2 run in 3:53 saw them take control of the game for the first time. This was less about everything clicking into place for Phoenix and more of its continuous kicking down the door finally smashing it to pieces. The Suns found an unbelievable amount of defensive juice, fueled by Devin Booker, who had four steals and three blocks.

“We just got stops and were able to get out and run and play off the pass, play off the pick-and-roll, just make quick decisions once we got stops,” Durant said of the spurt. “I think the name of the game for us is getting the rebound, getting out and going and finding the play from there.”

But an eight-point lead with 3:12 to go in the third quarter was nixed by an 8-0 Clippers run, and Phoenix never found its footing again in a situation it hadn’t been in as a group before.

At under six minutes to go down one, it was the portion of the ball game we’ve seen the Suns be more tidy in if not dominate. But not only was that not the case, they failed to get Kevin freaking Durant the ball in his spots.

With Ayton being defended again by a center, Chris Paul went to work in those same ball screens but missed a floater.

Booker drew a charge on the other end, and after a Suns timeout, Ayton had his own floater blocked by Russell Westbrook then missed a six footer. A Clippers turnover was matched by Booker and Phoenix surrendered an and-one in transition.

Booker turned it over on another drive but got it back on an incredible saving effort to find Craig for his own transition and-one.

Paul got to an open middy in semi-transition off a Clippers missed 3 but failed to convert. Los Angeles kept fumbling the dagger Phoenix was presenting, not scoring again. Ayton, however, missed another shot, this time a midrange jumper off a ball screen with Booker.

L.A. head coach Ty Lue took a timeout there with 3:07 left up one, sensing how much his group needed to just slow down and get a good look. But out of the break, Westbrook threw the ball to his own bench.

Surely this was the moment where Durant was to be involved after a timeout. Bafflingly, he stood in the corner as a spacer and Paul’s midrange jumper did not go down again.

“They were forcing us to take midrange shots in the pocket high instead of swinging it to the second side which is how we got the lead in the first place,” Williams said, a statement difficult to understand given Phoenix’s midrange prowess.

“I think they did a good job when I did get it they put the trap on me and I had to come off the ball,” Durant said of uncharacteristically taking one shot in crunch time of a one-possession game. “A lot of the time, I was spacing there in the corner just waiting for it (and) providing space for my teammates. I think we got some good looks in the fourth, we didn’t knock some down but we gotta give credit to the Clippers.”

That was the ball game right there. Seven empty trips of half-court offense from the most talented offensive team in the league that resulted in six missed shots and two turnovers.

The tide completely changed at under three minutes to go. Westbrook soared for an offensive rebound off a Clippers miss and miraculously found Leonard open on the right wing after he took a few seconds to pull the ball back out and reset, a horrible brain fart by the Suns defense.

Leonard responded to an Ayton jumper with another 3, this one contested. Ayton hit a floater, and after the Leonard jumpers, the Suns triple-teamed him and inexcusably left his only passing option 10 feet away wide-open at the top of the key. Eric Gordon, a tremendous 3-point shooter, drilled that.

Phoenix was down six with 90 seconds left and had to chase from there.

Durant’s lone shot of the last 6:49, a 3-point response on the Suns’ next possession, was followed by a great Paul steal to get two more free throws. They somehow still had one more grasp at it down a point with 1:08 remaining, but the Clippers rebounded three straight of their own misses.

“Those things just kind of piled up at the end,” Williams said of Los Angeles’ big shots and timely rebounds.

Ayton was in position for all three but Westbrook grabbed one, tipped another and then it was Los Angeles’ Terance Mann to get a finger on the third chance in Ayton’s vicinity. That killed 40 seconds and then Westbrook drew a shooting foul, hit both and then blocked Booker on the other end to seal it.

Westbrook shot 3-of-19 and was Los Angeles’ second-best player. I’m serious. He provided 10 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and three blocks to go with his nine points. This was the game to show anyone who doesn’t understand all the raving.

Durant scored 17 of his 27 points in that second quarter, doing the superstar thing to keep his team afloat when it should have drowned. That team high in points was joined by a team-high 11 assists, plus nine rebounds, a steal and two blocks.

Booker was really good in this game, mostly defensively in what was arguably the best he’s ever been on that end. He added 26 points, three assists and five turnovers.

This was a brutal Ayton game. The lack of physical finishing around the rim was compounded by his rebounding against Zubac, who snagged 15 in 30 minutes. Ayton grabbed eight to go with 18 points and had zero on the offensive glass after he produced 27 across the six-game 2021 Western Conference Finals against the Clippers.

Paul deserves some blame too for the clutch time failures. He was 2-of-8 with seven points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

There was a surprise before tip-off when Craig had Josh Okogie’s spot in the starting lineup. While Craig’s presence allowed Phoenix for a better 1-on-1 defensive matchup with Leonard, Okogie had been playing very well as a starter and Williams typically doesn’t tweak things when a player has found a groove. On top of that, Craig was playing his best basketball of the season once everyone was healthy again and he was a reserve.

But the move really speaks to the mindset around that fifth spot for this postseason. Okogie earned it. That didn’t matter as much in the grand scheme of the series, and that could again prove to be the case if Craig thrives as a starter but the second round presents a more definitive on-ball threat at guard for Okogie to take like the Denver Nuggets’ Jamal Murray.

Craig made his coach look smart with 22 points but the change absolutely destroyed any cohesion for a bench that was also without Cam Payne (low back soreness). Jock Landale’s field goal with 36 seconds left in the third quarter was at that point the first for a Phoenix reserve. Okogie shockingly only played seven minutes, and Williams said he wanted more size to combat Leonard and Los Angeles’ stockier guards like Gordon and Norman Powell.

While some of the hubbub surrounding this game will be the difference in bench points and depth, Los Angeles’ second-highest scorer behind Leonard was Gordon and his 19 points made him the only other Clipper to crack 15. Looking at just that combined with a night the Suns got 22 from Craig and it’s hard to believe they lost.

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