Suns’ path to redemption starts with blemish in loss to Clippers

Apr 16, 2023, 9:29 PM | Updated: Apr 17, 2023, 9:28 am

Atonement is the theme of the postseason. It is a word that does not contain the letter, “L.”

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the Suns’ playoff record.

Our journey of redemption began with a heavy blemish on Sunday night – a 115-110 loss to the Clippers that handed early momentum and home-court advantage to the opponent.

It is the first time Devin Booker’s Suns have lost Game 1 of a playoff series. It is also the first loss suffered by Kevin Durant as a member of the Suns’ lineup. It is not the cause for panic, but given our collective history, mild concern is appropriate.

“It’s one game,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “We’ll look at film, regroup and get ready for a big game here when we show up on Tuesday.”

The Suns had many chances to win this odd, chaotic game. With heightened urgency and defensive tenacity, they finally wrestled control of the matter in the third period. They gave it all back alarmingly fast.

While their defensive tenacity and rim protection was excellent in the second half, their offense struggled down the stretch. Too many shots were taken by players not named Booker or Durant. And then came the possession that took the life out of the building and the energy out of the home team.

Following a timeout with 1:08 remaining, the Clippers retained possession for the next 51 seconds. They produced offensive rebounds on three different missed shots. Russell Westbrook – arguably the Suns’ MVP for most of the night – took a break from the bricklaying (3-of-19 shooting) to make a series of huge plays. One of them included a smothering defensive stop on Booker, who curiously attempted to drive to the basket with the Suns trailing by three points.

It marked another night of playoff disappointment at Footprint Center, where the Suns’ brutal and plodding start drudged up painful memories of that Game 7 debacle against Dallas.

“No excuses,” Booker said. “It’s that time of year, and if you’re not up and ready for these (games), you’re playing the wrong sport.”

There were fears that the Suns hadn’t been properly tested down the stretch. That their sample size with Durant wasn’t enough to build the cohesion and trust necessary to succeed in the playoffs. Then Williams surprised all by utilizing 11 of his players and starting Torrey Craig over Josh Okogie.

To his credit, Craig was one of the top performers, scoring 22 points in just under 27 minutes.

But the Suns were also exposed by two of their primary weaknesses. Their bench was outscored 34-10, and the Clippers made 10-of-31 three-point shots on the evening, including a few devastating treys late in the fourth quarter.

That was four more than the Suns made from beyond the three-point line, a familiar refrain for most of the regular season.

With anxiety already growing in the Valley, it’s incumbent on Williams to get his offense and his rotation in synch. He needs to make sure his two superstars are running the show in the final five minutes, just like Kawhi Leonard (38 points) carried the Clippers to the finish line.

The Suns head coach might not be on any kind of hot seat entering the postseason. But new owner Mat Ishbia has no loyalties to the incumbent regime. He might be wondering why the team he purchased didn’t realize or utilize Mikal Bridges the way he’s being deployed in Brooklyn. He clearly has high expectations for this team to produce now.

So, there’s an element of pressure on Williams that’s only going to get louder. Especially after losing Game 1 at home.

Reach Bickley at Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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