EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns-Clippers Game 4 preview: Getting Devin Booker some help

Apr 21, 2023, 6:15 PM | Updated: 6:40 pm

Kevin Durant #35 and Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns in the second half of Game Three of the We...

Kevin Durant #35 and Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns in the second half of Game Three of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at Crypto.com Arena on April 20, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Clippers were the best-case scenario for the Phoenix Suns when Phoenix was positioned in the No. 4 seed and awaiting the results on the final day of the season to determine its matchup in the first round.

Or so we thought. What the Clippers have done through head coach Ty Lue’s ever-changing defensive schemes is make it impossible for Phoenix to get comfortable enough offensively to find a rhythm. That’s putting it lightly in the grand scheme of things, meaning that the Suns have to start getting comfortable so the offense can start to look like what it’s supposed to be with Kevin Durant.

Los Angeles was not a good defensive team in the regular season but has found its form when it matters the most. With that in mind, the Suns would have been better off playing just about anyone else, at least to not face a defense that is never the same.

Booker brought up after Game 3 how it feels like just about every possession is a look that has changed, and in Game 3, Los Angeles tossed just about everything at Phoenix.

This has required a superhuman effort from Booker, who revived the offense in Game 2 and took on that burden again in Thursday’s win, too.

It is out of necessity. Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton have not held up their ends of the bargain through three games and it is requiring both Booker and Durant to play heavy minutes. On top of that, Paul’s minutes are way up too. He’s averaging 39.0 minutes per game, seven minutes more than his number for the Suns’ last playoff series against Dallas.

One of the other three outside of Booker will have to raise their level of play for Phoenix to win this series still. If two do, it’ll be less of a dog fight. All three? Done in five. Yes, even as Kawhi Leonard (knee) and Paul George (knee) remain sidelined for Saturday’s Game 4. Torrey Craig has been superb as the fifth starter. The bench is coming off its best outing yet. That trio has got to start kicking it into high gear.

It’s amazing that Durant’s level of play feels “fine” and then you look at his numbers and he’s averaging 26.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game in the series while shooting 51%. That speaks to the expectations he brings on as a top-three basketball player on the planet.

The challenge for the Suns has been maximizing Durant’s impact through consistent involvement. Head coach Monty Williams said postgame that Durant is an “expensive decoy” when referring to how the forward works as a spacer within the offense and the way he attracts extra attention when he’s in the action.

Game 3 had even more second bodies thrown at Durant. When he was used within the flow, the results were very good. He is phenomenal at reading the floor, fully cognizant of how that extra defender’s choice can help his teammates.

We’ll get to how Durant was effectively breaking down traps with Ayton as well, but outside of that he didn’t spend enough time within the offense.

I asked Williams on Friday what the balance is like for him to take advantage of Durant’s gravity as more of a spacer or someone more directly inserted into the play. He mentioned how some of that strictly has to do with how much Los Angeles is getting physical with Durant off the ball beforehand.

“It’s hard,” Williams said. “They are doing a really good job of keeping their hands on his body. He is dealing with a lot of contact. You can view it a number of ways. You can complain about the physicality or you can use it to space the floor, and I think that’s one of the reasons Book has a lot of space to operate. Kevin, he gets frustrated. Because there are times we see a level of physicality that may or may not be called but at the same time, having been in these situations before, we all have to have a level of team poise and get through it and how can we use it to our advantage.

“And like I said, I think Book and DA are the recipients of it and Chris was too. He had a number of open shots that he normally knocks down. A lot of that is because Kevin is on the floor. I have to figure out ways to free him up but I think Kevin, as frustrated as he can be, he with his basketball mind understands the benefit of having somebody draped all over him for 48 minutes.”

When it comes to the frustration Durant has with the physicality, Williams wisely pointed out how Durant has dealt with this before.

“I try to do my job as a coach to let him know he’s alright,” he said. “He still had a number of points. I don’t look at the stat sheet during the game for the points. I typically look at rebounds and turnovers so I didn’t even have a clue he had 28 points last night. And I’m like, ‘Man, how’d he get ’em?’ He had somebody draped over him all night. He just finds ways to affect the game.”

With the deeper rounds likely to come for Phoenix, the process of still figuring out how to properly incorporate Durant in the middle of the playoffs is obviously proving to be an arduous task. The Suns will do themselves many favors to make substantial progress with it over the remainder of this series.

At some point we knew the Clippers were fully going to roll out the red carpet for Paul to shoot 3s and it was the most evident in Game 3. Paul mixed in taking the 3s and the driving lane, both of which were open. He struggled in both facets.

Even though over his career he’s been a very good on catch-and-shoot looks, he hesitates at times and his track record from last postseason as well makes it an easy decision for the Clippers when it is to help on Booker or Durant.

In the fourth quarter, Paul was 1-for-4 in these situations as Los Angeles kept sticking around.

This is the type of role Paul was getting ready for throughout the season. The moments are here. He has to capitalize more.

The Suns have all but abandoned the idea of using Ayton in the post. Even against smaller lineups. They have pegged the better options as the traps triggered by Booker and Durant. Ayton, though, can still impact those sequences in the short roll. He improved greatly there last season and is capable of scoring in those spaces.

He did a bit of this in Game 3 but has to be more consistent capitalizing off of the traps.

What is much more important, though, is how Ayton punishes the Clippers for going small. Los Angles went with an unheard of five-guard lineup for Game 3’s closing nine minutes. It’s as if someone double-dog dared Lue to take his series adjustments to new heights.

The Suns kept their normal lineup in there. Ayton got caught in no-man’s land a few times after a very poor performance as an interior defender in the first three quarters.

Ayton, of course, thrived defensively against a five-out Clippers look two years ago in the 2021 Western Conference Finals. They could not play him off the court and he kept making them pay. As always, we know what he’s capable of.

Part of his impact in that series was on the offensive glass. Presuming the Clippers toss this five-guard lineup out there again, Ayton should grab nearly every Suns miss. I do not take a declarative statement like that lightly but the tallest Clipper out there was 6-foot-5 Terance Mann who is listed at 215 pounds.

Ayton snagged two big ones versus that group on Thursday.

He’s gotta help with both sides of it and cover for his on-ball defenders when the point-of-attack juice isn’t there.

The Clippers attempted 45% of their shots at the rim in Game 3, which ranks in the 98th percentile on Cleaning the Glass. Phoenix won the math game at the foul line and on the glass but L.A. made up ground there and will snatch it back if it can score at the rim that much again.

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