EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns take early punch but can’t steady in Game 1 loss vs. Clippers

Apr 16, 2023, 6:31 PM | Updated: Apr 17, 2023, 12:51 am

PHOENIX — Whether it was the week-plus off for the Phoenix Suns’ core-four players or a starting lineup tweak, they started their playoff run against the Los Angeles Clippers desperate to find their bearings.

The Suns trailed by as many as 16 at Footprint Center through a first half that included a swap of Torrey Craig for Josh Okogie as the fifth starter and a curious decision by head coach Monty Williams, who turned to a defense-first — and offensively unimpressive — bench group.

It also didn’t help that their trio of mid-range gurus couldn’t find the bottom of the net early in a 115-110 loss.

Phoenix eventually cut the deficit to five by halftime and went ahead for the first time midway through the third quarter on a Chris Paul offensive-rebound-turned-nutmeg-pass to Craig.

The home team’s lead reached nine quickly but evaporated to zero heading into the fourth quarter.

The Suns were within a single possession for the final 1:50 but failed to get the stops, including a play where Los Angeles got four shot attempts up and burned time, from 1:08 to just 17 seconds left.

Durant led the way with 27 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds. None of his points came in the first quarter. He went 0-for-4 in the first quarter of his Suns playoff debut, the second time in 156 career playoff games where he didn’t score, per Stathead.

Kawhi Leonard piled up 38 points on 13-of-24 shooting.

Phoenix made Clippers center Ivica Zubac guard in pick-and-rolls, and his deep drops into the paint opened the door for Phoenix to attack at the elbows. Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Durant struggled.

Craig’s insertion into the Suns’ starting five made sense for several reasons.

It put him on Leonard and moved Durant onto his former Oklahoma City teammate Russell Westbrook, allowing Durant to sit back in the paint to help with his length because Westbrook is not much of a threat from three.

On the other end, Westbrook saw plenty of time guarding the much taller Durant. But on pick-and-roll attacks there, Los Angeles stepped into the elbow space with its bigs and had Westbrook chasing the backside of Durant with only the intent of swatting his jumpers from behind.

It was a quite different look than, say, against Paul and Booker, who just weren’t clicking.

And that’s before the Suns even got to their initial bench unit of Booker, Landry Shamet, Ish Wainright, Bismack Biyombo and Okogie. The Suns’ reserves were outscored by the Clippers bench 32-10.

That unit was short-lived in the first half, as Williams brought Durant back in for a final few possessions in the quarter and shooter Terrence Ross entered in the second.

Booker and Durant combined for six points in the first quarter but had 33 combined at half. Booker finished with 26 but had a shot blocked by Westbrook with 10 seconds left and the Suns trailing by three that ultimately sealed a Los Angeles win.

Ultimately, though, they needed help.

Durant had six dimes in the third quarter alone as Phoenix found Craig as the unlikely rim-rolling source of offense.

Craig scored 22, stepping up to the challenge and the promotion.

Deandre Ayton added 18 points, helping make up for few bench contributions.

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