EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns doomed by slow start in loss to Clippers

Jan 3, 2024, 10:47 PM | Updated: Jan 4, 2024, 11:48 am

PHOENIX — Progress by the Phoenix Suns over the last week made Wednesday’s matchup with the surging Los Angeles Clippers an interesting test, one they weren’t equipped for in a 131-122 loss.

The Clippers (21-12) won their 11th game out of their last 13, with that white-hot form throwing Phoenix (18-16) a strong enough first punch to end up the difference on the night. A 35-20 first quarter was an advantage L.A. held through three quarters thanks to maintaining some ridiculous shooting over the opening 36 minutes, 60% from the field with 15 3-pointers.

The festivities did get a lil’ goofy for a moment.

A 40-point Suns third quarter featured signs of life, only to be nearly matched by the Clippers’ 37. L.A. scored 27 of those from either the foul line or 3 to stay up 16 going into the fourth quarter after the closest Phoenix got in the third frame was 15.

And that is when for the second straight game, Bol Bol brought life to the game through his energy as a big man. He assisted an Eric Gordon 3 on the short roll, hit his own 3 and put back his offensive rebound to get Phoenix within 13 at 7:43 remaining. Whenever Bol did anything positive, it elicited one of the biggest crowd reactions of the night. So three plays in short order resulted in Suns fans completely getting back into the game and exploding in a way that indicated the Clippers had more work to do.

Bol remained in at the 5 at 4:19 to go and the Suns trailing by eight, with the flow of the game dictating this would be more about if the Suns generated enough stops. It was already in a weird zone for L.A. of “oh we thought this was over” combined with “OK the crowd is picking them up” combined with “wait are they chanting ‘BOL BOL!’?” so who knows what was going to happen.

But a similar result from earlier ensued, with the Clippers generating a good look from 3 that dropped and a Suns turnover before Kawhi Leonard free throws put the Clippers calmly back ahead 13. Even after another strike back from Phoenix, a powerful Leonard drive and James Harden step-back 3 were back-to-back daggers.

“I’m more concerned with how we started the game defensively,” Suns head coach Frank Vogel said. “I don’t think we had the necessary disposition to guard an elite offense, a team with a lot of firepower. … They didn’t feel us in the first half.”

“We gotta start games better with a sense of urgency and just be ready for the fight,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “We were fighting an uphill battle the whole way. We showed some things in the second half of what it looks like when we turn up the energy and we turn up the intensity.”

The Suns without Kevin Durant (right hamstring soreness) again elected to keep the same starting lineup from Monday’s win, with Chimezie Metu in his place. Given the matchup, this was a big vote of confidence from the coaching staff.

Harden is a strong, large guard and the duo of Paul George and Leonard are giant wings teams are lucky to have one ideal defender for. Durant would presumably be tasked with the Leonard matchup given his length and size but there’s still questions elsewhere.

And even in an idea of avoiding man-to-man defense with a switch-heavy scheme and gimmicks like zone, Los Angeles will still find isolations, as they entered the night No. 1 in the NBA for isolation frequency, per NBA Stats. While Metu has been solid defensively for the Suns, he hasn’t been tasked with much on the ball, and the step up on Wednesday was defending a monster like Leonard. Metu only played 15 minutes, though, and Keita Bates-Diop tried his best in 21 marking Leonard or George.

There’s also the Grayson Allen part of this equation, and he turned into a target of sorts for especially Leonard in the second half.

Until Beal gets more games in, Allen has been Phoenix’s third-best player this year. The fifth starter spot heading into the season was thought of one that would rotate based on matchup but Allen is so vital to Phoenix’s offensive success and contributes lots elsewhere that there’s no other possibility to consider. But elite size or speed is where Allen’s on-ball defense can meet its match, a playoff hypothetical that lingers over his role and the choice Vogel potentially has to make in April. That was on display with both Harden and Russell Westbrook going at him.

Phoenix started off the game playing straight up without much switching, and because Bradley Beal was playing free safety off Terance Mann (a 20.3% 3-point shooter this year), he was able to clog up some space like Jusuf Nurkic. This and the just-about-instant doubles on Leonard were fine.

The Clippers, however, did a great job playing off it, with Mann scoring 12 points in the first quarter and George adding 17. The errors came in containing George, who got free too often.

Still, this was not the primary issue. The issue was the Suns let this get to them by losing their high energy levels, allowing a great beginning seven minutes to take the wind out of their sails. L.A. was first to a few 50-50 balls and the intensity elsewhere was lacking. The Clippers jumped all over this even more to get that 15-point lead and Phoenix never relocated its mojo until it was too late.

L.A. employed its usual hyper-aggressive strategy of blitzing Booker in ball screens, doing the same for Beal when he wasn’t out there with Booker.

The Clippers are terrific at executing that while it’s more often than not a mixed bag for the Suns. Outside of six turnovers, Booker did a great job against it and didn’t have many avenues in the first half. There was just zero margin for error with those giveaways and the windows he found to shoot in the third quarter for 19 of his 35 points came once L.A. was rolling. His night on 11-of-15 shooting, particularly the second half, was the best Booker has looked in the last string of games.

Phoenix put up 101 points in the last three quarters and made 12 triples in the second half to help get there. Gordon had 16 points off the bench while Bol provided 14. Beal looked great, but like Booker on Monday, just couldn’t get shots to fall. He was 7-of-20 for 21 points with five rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block in 41 minutes.

Leonard didn’t see the doubles the whole way through and was unguardable once he got cooking after a scoreless first to end up with 30 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks. George found too much space all night with 33 points, a nod to how the Suns’ defensive rotations were OK but not nearly at the level they needed to be at in order to stop a team as talented as the Clippers playing this well. Harden, one of the NBA’s best combinations of passing ability and floor vision in the last decade, picked those apart fairly easily to the tune of 22 points and 11 assists.

That’s a just about impossible trio for any defense to stop, both with personnel and execution, where the Suns really lag behind. Seeing both George and Leonard in those uniforms on this floor again really hammered home how amazing they should always be together. George was unbelievable in the 2021 Western Conference Finals against Phoenix while Leonard was the terminator in last year’s first round versus the Suns before getting hurt. They are capable of reaching those heights once more, and could do so together if they finally can stay healthy.

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