EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns-Clippers Game 5 preview: Bench finding form, Westbrook’s brilliance
Apr 24, 2023, 3:56 PM | Updated: 4:53 pm
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns are getting there, in more ways than one.
Halfway through Phoenix’s Game 3 victory over the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals two years ago, a team that had consistently reached gears four and five uncovered a previously unseen sixth, looking the part of best team in the world.
That mid-postseason development is a necessity for this Suns group. If we were to pick a gear they’ve found with Kevin Durant so far, it’s not fair to suggest they’ve even pulled out of the neighborhood yet. Once it looks comfortable enough for a spin on the highway, that’s a championship-caliber squad. That 2021 Suns team needed to reach triple digits on the speedometer but this one can get a ring just a few ticks over the speed limit on the Loop 101.
Given Durant’s adaptability and the ability of Phoenix’s best four players, it is expected. The closest its gotten to finding a second or third gear was Saturday’s Game 4 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers to take a 3-1 series lead. Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton all impacted the game enough to display real signs of progress.
Far more under the radar, however, is the bench returning to Phoenix for Tuesday’s Game 5 coming off its best pair of efforts as well.
Head coach Monty Williams has mixed and match through his many choices in four games. Through that, he’s at least landed on three reliable contributors.
Josh Okogie played 25 minutes, including 17 in the first half, which is more than any bench player reached for all of Game 2.
Thanks to Okogie’s time spent as a starter, he joins Torrey Craig as the sixth true two-way performer in the rotation. He’s got the intricacies of the 0.5 offensive philosophies down, is a force on the offensive glass and brings obvious value defensively.
“Josh gives you versatility defending but his ability to read and react to how they’re playing defense and playing against Kevin and Book has been really good for us and even Chris,” Williams said Monday. “When Chris has the ball in pick-and-roll, he’s done a really good job of slashing with a purpose, the offensive rebounding. He’s another guy that can get a rebound and push it and can get all the way to the rim.
“He’s given us a different look in many respects on defense, but I think offensively, it doesn’t get talked about enough what he does with his slashing. Sometimes his slash opens up a shot for somebody else on the back side.”
Here’s a full grab-and-go Williams alluded to:
Okogie has become really good at maximizing his spacing despite his shooting woes. We will go over a later example with Damion Lee where he uses himself as a screener when someone joins him in the corner, and Okogie will relocate himself to open up space elsewhere.
Okogie drifts into pockets of the midrange for cutting opportunities but is cognizant of where to be along the way. He reads Booker’s drive here and times floating back out to the top of the key, opening up Paul’s lift to the right wing so Booker can emerge back in that corner Okogie could have just snoozed in like many off-ball players would.
Craig’s surprising move into the starting lineup threw off Okogie’s role at the start of the series but he has now settled into a decent load of minutes and Okogie is a clear choice for someone to reach at least 20 minutes a night so some of the stars can get more of a rest.
The back and forth for reserve center minutes this year has landed on Bismack Biyombo for this series and he’s quietly been solid.
In my decade-plus of extensively analyzing the Suns, Biyombo is the best shot-blocker I’ve seen the team have. Even in a limited role and just two years into his stay, I feel confident labeling him as one of the best in franchise history.
Booker is a better source for that claim than I am. Has he played with a shot-blocker like Biyombo before?
“I have not,” Booker said Monday. “I don’t think I’ve played against one either to be honest.”
Biyombo managed 1.4 blocks per game in just 14.3 minutes a night this season, and to properly contextualize that, he blocked 9% of the shot attempts when he was on the floor. That block percentage is top-20 all-time among players to appear in at least 60 games, per Stathead. That’s alongside names like Manute Bol, Alonzo Mourning and 2022-23 Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr.
Biyombo’s played 42 minutes through four games and has a team-leading six blocks.
He attacks the ball in the air. It’s like watching the climax of a long hunt after days and nights of stalking.
Our generous media seating in Los Angeles has us just behind the right corner on this first clip, and Biyombo soared in out of nowhere like a lion leaping out of the bushes.
A crucial piece to understand about shot-blocking in the playoffs especially is that most of the time it is going to lead to an immediate transition opportunity, much like steals. This team needs those looks.
Biyombo’s other job is to finish possessions offensively, whether that’s catches around the rim or short rolls coming off of traps on the ball-handlers. He’s been OK so far, with two of his three turnovers in those spots but also three of his four assists there as well.
The veteran center always sees the floor at a high level. Biyombo made an instant impression when he joined mid-season last year with how much he was talking right away. He’s unafraid to point something out to anyone because he understands where the chess pieces on both ends have to be. That has come across with his progress in making the right passes in the 4-on-3 spot off of doubles.
When he gets a chance to finish plays, Biyombo is getting wrapped up so he has to earn his points at the foul line. He regressed significantly this year there, down to a career-low 35.7% on 70 attempts, and his career percentage of 55.6% was always a bit problematic anyway.
Biyombo is 5-for-11 in the series, but as long as he keeps being a playmaker on both ends as we covered, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.
Cam Payne’s absence due to low back soreness has denied the Suns their usual first sub in for Paul, where Landry Shamet has taken his place. Shamet had a good Game 1 but has struggled since, and Damion Lee should have that spot going forward after back-to-back great outings as a mid-game change for that spot in Games 3 and 4.
Payne, by the way, was upgraded to probable on the injury report. It looks like we’ll see him make his postseason debut this year on Thursday, which means someone like Lee naturally slides into that ninth man role.
Lee, the team’s best 3-point shooter this season at 44.5%, provides relief with the threat of just that. He is a heady player that understands his role.
If you’re at Game 5, watch Lee during timeouts. Sometimes, he will grab a ball and shoot it straight up into the air, or do something else. He said after Game 3 at the beginning of his career it started as him sort of messing around, things like dribbling a ball around an official, but he’s fine-tuned it in a way to maintain mental focus. Lee will envision himself on the floor and certain perimeter locations, knowing what the defense’s goals are that particular night.
Williams postgame on Thursday said Lee was probably insulted at the notion of being told to stay ready because of his preparation process.
“Understanding how series goes, how the season goes and just whenever it’s your time just getting your work in when the bright lights aren’t on and trying my best to stay as ready as possible,” Lee said Thursday. “Going game speed, watching a lot of film and being ready for whatever opportunity comes.”
Lee had eight points in 11 minutes for Game 3, an indicator of his positive contribution, but here are three plays from his 14 minutes in a Game 4 he only took one shot in (and missed) that illustrate his impact.
To go back to Okogie, he screens his own man for Lee moving on the baseline to the corner and Los Angeles’ Terance Mann has to stay with Lee because of the shooting threat.
Remember Biyombo blocks leading to the fastbreak? Here’s the result of his one from Game 4, and watch Lee. He could look to catch this pass and get set for a look from 3 he might not get again all day, but he makes the right basketball play and keeps the ball moving.
Lastly, there’s a good chance Paul gets doubled here from the weak-side corner as he marauds into a midrange jumper. But Lee’s defender Bones Hyland flashes back to Lee, knowing his assignment on a shooter.
Lee needs to play.
Before we go, usually we’d cover how the Suns need to adjust to a brilliant 37-point performance from an opposing player like Russell Westbrook had on Saturday. But it was a 37 Phoenix will live with, at least when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are out, because Westbrook really gets dangerous when he’s setting up his teammates as a driving playmaker.
Westbrook was 17-of-29 without a free throw attempt and you’ll see how Phoenix did a good job of contesting but not fouling or trying to win back the position taken by Westbrook.
A juxtaposition within Westbrook’s game is defenders play off him since he’s a bad jump shooter and is prone to accepting that open invitation. But what that does is allow Westbrook to start getting downhill, and once he does, it’s a mammoth task to stop him.
Westbrook is my personal No. 1 all-time basketball player when it comes to the possibilities of him in another sport. His exceptional agility and burst would have made him a dynamic soccer player. The phenomenal strength ties into the other football. I’m sure there are a dozen Olympic events he would have thrived in too.
It’s amazing watching him in this series at 34 years old with 37,552 minutes on his body and another 4,321 from the playoffs, a lot of them through incredibly high usage. He still absolutely explodes if a defense can’t anticipate a ball screen set for him correctly.
A few of these too are just mano a mano macho stuff. Booker has been tremendous defensively in this series but Westbrook has gone right through him at times.
In case you forgot, that’s one of the greatest point guards of all time right there.
Expect him to put up one heck of a last stand on Tuesday.