‘We want him taking more shots’: Torrey Craig in middle of a Clippers-Suns chess match

Apr 17, 2023, 9:43 AM | Updated: 10:36 am

Suns F Torrey Craig guard the Clippers'Kawhi Leonard...

Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers handles the ball against Torrey Craig #0 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half Game One of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at Footprint Center on April 16, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — If a Phoenix Suns game existed this season where the offense ran exclusively through Torrey Craig, it must have been Men In Black-style neuralyzed from our memory banks.

It was surprising that after the Suns rallied from a poor start in Game 1 of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, they came out of the halftime break on Sunday down just five points and ready to attack … by turning time and time again to Craig.

Craig took seven attempts in the third quarter. In total, he made nine field goals to score 22 points on 12 attempts, the fourth-most on the team.

All that’s dandy.

But it was a symptom of Phoenix doing something quite out-of-the-ordinary. Too out-of-the-ordinary.

Clippers head coach Ty Lue didn’t even try to mask the fact that he favored Craig dropping 22 points as the surprise fifth starter, replacing Josh Okogie from the starting lineup heavily used with a fully healthy and available Phoenix squad to end the regular season.

“I mean, we know CP, we know Booker, we know KD, what they can do,” Lue said after Los Angeles took Game 1, 115-110. “And Craig’s been playing great. I mean, not to take away from him, but you know, we want him taking more shots.

“… They did a good job of just running actions for him and getting a couple shots and he played well, but just trying to take the ball out of KD and Book’s hands as much as possible.”

Durant took 15 shots (27 points), while Booker paced Phoenix with 19 (26 points). Still, Durant was forced to be a playmaker for much of the game, and he only took a single shot in the final six-plus minutes.

Los Angeles was begging the Suns to attack in new, unorthodox ways.

For that stretch in the third quarter especially, Clippers star Kawhi Leonard began halfcourt defensive possessions guarding Phoenix center Deandre Ayton, leaving Los Angeles center Ivica Zubac on Craig.

The Suns reacted by turning to heavy doses of Craig screening for ball handlers and rolling. He attacked the rim well, stretched the wings at other points and even hit a couple midrange jumpers. He also thrived in transition and junk plays, scoring off a Chris Paul nutmeg of Zubac and on Devin Booker’s front of Leonard that led to a deflection and fling to keep the play alive, sending Craig sprinting the other way in transition for an and-one.

In the Suns’ press conference room after the game at Footprint Center, head coach Monty Williams spoke candidly. He almost didn’t seem too excited about Craig’s production.

Williams could only say that Phoenix’s heavy Craig-centric stretch “wasn’t bad.” He expressed concern that the Suns didn’t run enough of their usual offense.

“I thought we allowed their, the way they matched us, I thought that messed with us a little bit,” Williams said.

Craig’s insertion into the starting lineup might’ve appeared baffling to fans.

Okogie had excelled alongside Durant, Booker, Paul and Deandre Ayton.

It’s probably not a bad idea to move Okogie out of being that guy Craig was: the player the Clippers were happy to be making decisions and taking shots. Then again, Okogie’s seven minutes off the bench — and playing with an offensively inept group on Sunday — were far less valuable than Okogie starting, even considering the offensive risks.

It’s Williams’ probably correct opinion that Craig’s size against Leonard is a plus. Then again, Leonard went for 38 points on 13-of-24 shooting. Not that Craig could have done much more to stop Leonard.

Perhaps overthinking it was the starting lineup swap to begin with. Maybe overthinking it moving forward is reverting so quickly back to Okogie in the starting group Tuesday in Game 2.

Or maybe it’s not oversimplifying things for Williams to push his Suns just to trust in their offense rather than hunting Zubac mismatches too much.

Is your head spinning yet?

Here are facts:

For the first time in the six playoff series under Williams, the Suns lost Game 1. It’s also Durant’s first loss in nine games with Phoenix.

And for the first time in four playoff series for the Clippers’ Lue era, his team won Game 1.

Asked by a Clippers reporter why the playoffs are his “happy place” before the game, Lue said this: “I just love the back-and-forth. The chess match. I’m playing against really good teams, really good competition and you get a chance to, you know, take that best shot that you get a chance to come back and adjust and make adjustments, see how they do.

“And you know, I just like I like this time of the year.”

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‘We want him taking more shots’: Torrey Craig in middle of a Clippers-Suns chess match