EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Clippers series is a slice of how Frank Vogel wants to see Suns improve

Jan 4, 2024, 10:48 AM | Updated: 11:48 am

Some would-be title contenders not reaching the expectations mark so far this season acted with urgency long ago.

The Golden State Warriors benched starters Andrew Wiggins and Klay Thompson on Dec. 13 against the Phoenix Suns. The Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday hit the reports-of-locker-room-turmoil point after a loss to the Miami Heat on Tuesday and have gone 3-9 since winning the NBA In-Season Tournament.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix Suns (18-16) have only dealt with a vague report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski about “frustration” on Kevin Durant’s part.

But publicly, head coach Frank Vogel and his players have maintained patience, even after a 131-122 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, who poured in 35 points or more in the first three quarters.

Vogel didn’t like the Suns’ “defensive disposition” in the first half — but he did like how Phoenix responded. His answer to a question about whether the problem of tanked quarters is scheme- or effort-related did a good job of framing why the team has maintained a calm approach despite things not being fixed.

“This is a complex gameplan. Complex gameplans fit the playoffs, OK, but they’re not always perfect with a 20-minute shootaround in an 82-game season in terms of ironing out all the execution pieces,” he said. “We’ll be better the next time we play these guys next week. We have a feel for some of the things they like to do and the coverages we like to implement, and, shoot, we were better in the second half. I’m confident we’ll do better next week.”

Fans might not like that answer because it hasn’t been met with results in the win-loss columns.

Complex gameplans also don’t explain poor transition defense that Devin Booker said was about the Suns running to their assigned men instead of the open Clippers.

But to take what Vogel said seriously, there’s this: It was Phoenix’s first game against the reshaped and very good Clippers this year with three more regular season contests left.

The Suns visit Los Angeles next Monday and then get two in a row toward the end of the year: at Phoenix on April 9 and in LA the next day.

How Phoenix adjusts and improves — or doesn’t — between those close sets of two games will tell us a little bit about how well the Suns are absorbing and executing information. It’ll say how well they’re improving.

To be fair to Vogel, Phoenix did show some playoff-type improvements on Wednesday night while missing Kevin Durant (hamstring).

Booker, who finished with 35 points, six assists and six turnovers, got early buckets before Los Angeles coach Ty Lue pulled out what Booker calls a “junk” defense. The Clippers blitzed him hard on every single action from that point forward.

“First three possessions I got a few good looks, I made ’em all. I ran by their bench and T-Lue said ‘not again,'” Booker told reporters after the game. “I’m still looking for ways to be aggressive, but I’m past that phase of my career of forcing bad shots especially when I trust everybody out there with me.

“Especially when we’re staggering minutes and we’re missing one of the three of (himself, Durant or Beal), it’s easy for a defense to key on us. When there’s three of us playing, usually there’s two of us on the court at the same time where you don’t see those defenses. We still found ways in the second half, things we can build on and carry over.”

Phoenix moved Booker more off the ball to get him shooting off screens to receive the ball in the second half. He erupted with a 19-point third quarter.

Vogel fired through four centers on the night, playing starter Jusuf Nurkic 25 minutes in favor of more agile lineups against the high-powered Clippers. Udoka Azubuike got a quick look, then Drew Eubanks came in briefly.

The two backup centers combined for six whole minutes before Bol Bol got run for 19 minutes, including center duty down the stretch of the fourth quarter as the Suns made a run.

Bol went 6-for-7 with two threes made, and poor spacing in the first half opened up. Phoenix shot 53% for the game and went 15-of-35 (42%) from three.

“I think Frank did a good job of putting more shooting on the floor and they was able to take advantage of it,” Lue told reporters. “We told our guys to close out short to a few of those (role players) and they made threes. So hats off to them.

“We know Book and Bradley could get it going … second half they got it going a little bit more. For us it’s a good team and they’re going to make a run.”

The Suns’ own rapid adjustments, especially ones that worked, showed how different of an approach they are taking things this season under Vogel. It’s a major contrast to the consistency of the Monty Williams era preceding him.

Games against Miami, Memphis, the Clippers and the struggling Lakers upcoming will paint a picture of whether Vogel’s lay-it-on-thick approach will settle against amped-up competition. Or if strings of bad quarters is a troubling sign that bites Phoenix more than any pre- or mid-game adjusting can make up for.

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