Suns-Clippers Game 2 preview: Phoenix’s effort to dictate the style of play

Apr 17, 2023, 4:57 PM | Updated: Apr 18, 2023, 7:36 am

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns talks with Chris Paul #3 during the first half Game One of the...

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns talks with Chris Paul #3 during the first half Game One of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs against the LA Clippers at Footprint Center on April 16, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — For the first time in the Monty Williams era, the Phoenix Suns are down 0-1 in a playoff series.

Phoenix was previously 6-0 in Game 1s, all at home, before Sunday’s 115-110 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Those six victories featured an overwhelming force of attention to detail and work rate. Though there was slippage at times, the latter was there most of the night. The execution, however, was not.

Once Phoenix got by the first-game jitters in Game 1 two years ago against the Los Angeles Lakers, it shot 52.0% and had a 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio over the next five Game 1s. The numbers on Sunday weren’t too far off, 47.6% and a 2.7 ratio, but the eye test was far more revealing on offense.

“It was all over the place,” Williams said postgame. “We missed shots in the paint that we typically make but it didn’t look like there was a great flow tonight. We gotta get more organized and run our stuff.”

Before we cover that negative and more of them, this is a game the Suns outscored the Clippers by 25 points across 17:23 from the early second quarter to mid-third quarter.

Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul all missed a few midrange shots in rhythm they usually do not. It was Booker and Durant in the opening quarter and the Paul/Ayton combination for the final frame. There were also over a half-dozen brain farts defensively that led to free baskets and some bad defensive rebounding, something Phoenix will clean up from an otherwise great defensive performance.

The Suns easily could have won Game 1 and they were emphatically not themselves. Something to digest. Moving on.

The Suns were not good as a reactive team. Los Angeles deployed Kawhi Leonard on Deandre Ayton in half-court sets to stifle Phoenix’s screening game on and off the ball. The best the Suns could do was use Torrey Craig as the screener instead to still attack Clippers center Ivica Zubac as the anchor.

It was a different version of matchup hunting, worrying about exploiting the opposition instead of just doing what they do best. Crucially, from Los Angeles’ perspective, this kept the game’s pace down in two different ways.

Pace is thought of as running the ball up and down the floor like the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, but most of the time when this Suns team is talking about that, it’s referring to the movement on and off the ball in half-court situations.

Some of that correlates directly to the 19 three-point attempts on Sunday, an unacceptable number in today’s game. Any team with that low of a number in today’s NBA is putting itself at an automatic disadvantage.

Phoenix on the 2021 run to the Finals attempted under 25 just four times out of the 22 games while last year in 13 games it happened only twice.

“I thought we played really slow,” Williams said Monday. “Our start was slow, the ball movement wasn’t where it needs to be. They had some weird lineups out there and weird matchups and we just didn’t identify it fast enough on the fly. And that’s on me to get us in those spots to take advantage of it. … 19 3s in a game like that — that’s way too low.”

Williams made a good point in that funky stuff like the Leonard wrinkle is basically another way of junking the game up. The No. 1 priority for that type of defensive tweak is to grind the flow down to a halt. If it results in good defense as well, that’s a bonus. If not, great, the momentum has stalled out and now the defense can go back to its more traditional coverages.

“When they’re switching or when they have Zubac on Torrey or that kind of thing — it shouldn’t slow us down. I liken it to a zone,” he said. “That’s what they want. They want you to slow down and that’s not what we do.”

For those that watched, think about how many times you saw the Suns force the Clippers to actually rotate as a defense multiple times on the same possession. Making a few passes after forcing the initial movement off some creation for Booker, Durant or Paul.

This was really the only one.

Expect far more on Tuesday.

This all speaks to what has been one of the few problems for the Suns the last two-plus seasons. Phoenix will often adjust to its opponent instead of dictating the style of play it wants on its own. Putting Craig in the starting lineup to combat Leonard reinforced that, as did the rotation choices behind that to combat Los Angeles’ ball-handling threats.

The Suns’ lineups with Booker plus four reserves included the perimeter options of Josh Okogie, Landry Shamet and Ish Wainright. In the first quarter, it was Bismack Biyombo. That is the best defensive group possible for those slots, and you figure Booker can just do the star thing on offense, but that personnel limits him. Okogie and Wainright are two spacers the Clippers will heavily help off and L.A. will dare Shamet to beat them off the dribble on drives. Ditto on Biyombo’s short rolls.

That resulted in these for that group.

It’s unfair to spotlight just the bad offensive results for those guys. Then again, Booker + bench lineups were -11 in 3:29 over the end of the first and third quarters. Durant checked back in with about a minute left for each of them to stop the bleeding.

Giving Booker a better chance with more offense out there, either with Damion Lee, Terrence Ross or T.J. Warren, is the type of trade-off Phoenix should pull the trigger on.

As far as Craig starting, he did as good of a job as anyone on Phoenix could have on Leonard, who made a bunch of contested jumpers. The lone criticism there is how much Leonard was able to get the ball freely to start a sequence, which is where Okogie’s navigation off the ball could be useful. But he’s giving up a lot of size.

This possession featuring both Craig and Durant denying the passing lane is what Phoenix will need more of, and should at least consider helping a bit more to make happen more frequently. Maybe even doubling.

Okogie is terrific at that type of thing. Giving him a shot on Leonard for a bit, one he did not get in Game 1 with the defensive assignments, just to see if he could blow up enough possessions is a worthwhile gamble. In general, with the way his energy has positively affected games, seven minutes is not enough.

Speaking of gambles, how about throwing Leonard in the action with Ayton more?

This was the Suns’ first real half-court possession of the game and they never tried something like it again.

Better yet, toss it into the post and see what happens. This should not be the type of defensive role where Leonard can get some rest. He’s guarding the center making $31 million this season.

To go back to where we started, the offensive process just needs to churn and keep the gears spinning like we are used to. They cannot allow a clever adjustment or two to rattle that cage enough.

“I thought we allowed the way they matched us, I thought that messed with us a little bit,” Williams said postgame. “We have to just run our stuff and that’s what we’re gonna talk about tomorrow. Just run our stuff and that’s what we’re gonna talk about tomorrow. Just run our stuff no matter how they match up and make them play against our offense. Our offense is pretty good.”

On that note, Williams on Monday brought up creating environments for Durant to get the ball more freely. Phoenix’s signature elements of the offense to feature Durant in the regular season were off the ball, whether it was mid-post isolations or elbow looks. Those were hardly available all night, so the Suns have to go back to the drawing board.

Durant brought the ball up a ton more, a good idea. He was mostly marked by a far smaller defender, and those guys were getting into Durant’s chest on his handle to limit his space. Phoenix needs to create more because the likes of Eric Gordon, Norman Powell and Russell Westbrook are being disruptive through screens and in recovery from behind. They deserve massive credit for how Game 1 went and proved doubters like myself wrong in the full scope of the matchup.

If there was any discrepancy that was troubling, it was how much easier the Clippers made it look to revolve their offense around their superstar compared to the Suns. Phoenix took the favorable matchup out of its Big 4 in crunch time through Paul and Ayton, but as it was failing, the adjustment should have come sooner to get Durant the ball. That is what he is here for.

Phoenix bringing ease to that and finding its execution in general will tell the tale of Game 2 and the series. if the Suns are still hesitant and lacking pace in the half-court, the Clippers are really going to drag this first round out.

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