Suns-Clippers Game 3 preview: Battling math and tightening screws

Apr 19, 2023, 6:07 PM

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns is fouled by Norman Powell #24 of the LA Clippers during the fi...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns is fouled by Norman Powell #24 of the LA Clippers during the first half of Game Two of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at Footprint Center on April 18, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Clippers 123-109. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

After a week of both analyzing and guessing, two games have provided us a good enough idea of what the series between the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers will come down to. More so, how Los Angeles overcomes a large gap in talent without Paul George.

The Clippers have an edge in math. And they know it. They come back home ahead of Thursday’s Game 3 and will have an extra bit of confidence because of that.

They are 21-of-61 on 3s compared to Phoenix’s 16-for-43, while their free-throw numbers of 51-for-60 is also above the Suns’ 39-of-47 mark. We don’t even need to go over percentages, because it’s more about Los Angeles generating 18 more 3s and 13 more free throws across just two contests.

On top of that, Los Angeles is ahead 27-13 in offensive rebounds and 33-22 for second-chance points.

The Clippers will trust those numbers and believe in having tidy enough execution across the other areas to really make this series up for grabs, stretching it to six or seven games. Phoenix has to try and make up ground there, like its 33-29 result in free throw attempts for Game 1.

The thing is, the Suns knew this both coming into the series and after Game 1. Both times, they failed in some facets. That is concerning.

But what really changed in Tuesday’s Suns win compared to Sunday’s loss was how sharp they were in a myriad of ways. Monty Williams refers to tightening the screws, and while there were some negatives, it was some big-time progress for a few aspects. Yes, even in an outing midrange marksmanship and ridiculous 67.5% shooting overall in the middle quarters carried them.

The Suns got Kevin Durant the ball much more in good spots off of the ball. The ease of getting him the rock where he primarily had it in the regular season returned.

Out of Durant’s 10 field goals, seven were in half-court situations when someone set Durant up off the ball. That’s compared to zero in Game 1, when Durant relied more on bringing the ball up and receiving it off of defensive breakdowns.

Seven games in for Durant’s Suns tenure, we went through where he was racking up buckets and there were some familiar notes.

Three on Tuesday were in isolation situations, two of which were in the mid-post. Los Angeles is primarily using smaller guards on Durant, so that’s where he can go to work and rise up over them.

Another two were maneuvering around the elbow, a Phoenix staple you can see Durant starting to get more comfortable with in terms of where the space is.

Lastly, more of a Durant staple for himself is pindown screens that allow him to streak into the ball from under the basket to the foul line. Another pair there as his chemistry with the screener Deandre Ayton continues to grow.

This was a ton of improvement from game-to-game. In addition, Phoenix was able to get Durant in those mid-post isolation mismatches off switches when Los Angeles was triggering double teams. This led to two buckets for Devin Booker on back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter. (Peep the cut by Josh Okogie in the second clip. Well done!)

Concern over the short amount of time together on the floor mounted after Sunday primarily because of how challenging it looked to get Durant in his comfort zones. But it was back to our regularly scheduled programming on Tuesday.

Speaking of, Los Angeles’ doubles were also mixed in with center Ivica Zubac playing at the level of the screen when Durant and Booker were attacking in the second half. That did not go well for the Clippers, either, and this one possession shows where Phoenix can exploit this further if the wrinkle is more prominent in Game 3.

Here, Durant runs a ball screen with Ayton. The twist is Booker (with Kawhi Leonard on him) is in the strong-side corner, so because of that, Ayton gets in the short roll with either an open lane or a 2-on-1 situation over on the weak side.

Take a look at how much room there is to feed either Torrey Craig or Chris Paul, two solid 3-point shooters this season.

Ayton is a great short-roll big after two years of really honing in on it, and passes like that are ones we’ve seen him make consistently. Double if you dare, L.A.!

On the other side, Phoenix mixed in more aggressive defensive coverages on Leonard, who has been the series’ best player through two games.

Doubles were coming Leonard’s way as soon as he started to attack inside the 3-point line. The rotations and intention were good. The execution was more of a mixed bag.

“It wasn’t as good as it needed to be,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said Wednesday. “We allowed him to split a number of trapping opportunities and that’s a no-no when it comes to trapping. If you were blitzing pick-and-roll, you wouldn’t want the guard to split because you’ve got two guys behind the guy with the ball and now you’re at a deficit. It’s something that we have to continue to mix in but we have to be way more sound in how we do it.”

Here is what Williams is talking about.

Williams mentioned the pass to the second side, and those open 3-pointers are not worth collapsing on Leonard. Los Angeles has too many solid shooters.

Elsewhere, a halftime adjustment was allowing Ayton to come to the level of the screen. This is something the more hardcore, strategy-head Suns fans have been begging for since Durant arrived, and even before then. Durant can protect the rim while Ayton plays higher to hedge or trap, and Ayton is athletic enough to make the rotations.

Even better, covering the rolling Zubac and “tagging” him was Booker, the guy covering Westbrook, a shooter Phoenix can play off of to be aggressive elsewhere.

To put it more simply, it can just mess up possessions and force the Clippers to reset with half of the shot clock gone or more.

The Clippers were 26th in assist-to-turnover ratio this season and on Tuesday they had 17 assists and 15 turnover, an ugly rate.

We’ve seen how Los Angeles’ variety of defensive schemes that sometimes change each possession can throw a wrench in Phoenix’s goals offensively. The Suns need to be capable of doing more of that themselves.

“It’s just something we feel like we have to mix in,” Williams said. “No different than what they’re doing on Kevin and Book and sometimes Chris.”

When it comes to where the Suns have to get better, Durant on Wednesday covered the basics. Offensive rebounding came up, and in particular, Phoenix has to match up better if the Clippers do get the ball.

Some of these are bang-bang plays where it’s hard for the Suns to instantly react but the free additional 3-pointers is where the math becomes even more of a problem.

For a series all about stars like Leonard, Durant and Booker, the chess match continues.

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