When the Phoenix Suns were seeded fourth and awaited the results of the last day of the season to select their first-round opponent, the Los Angeles Clippers were the best-case scenario.
So we reasoned. The Clippers’ constantly shifting defensive systems have made it tough for Phoenix to become comfortable enough offensively to create a rhythm. In the big scheme of things, it means the Suns need to start getting comfortable so the offence can start to look like what it’s intended to be with Kevin Durant.
Los Angeles was not a strong defensive club throughout the regular season, but it has improved in crunch time. With that in mind, the Suns would have been better off playing anybody else, if only to avoid facing a defence that never seems to be the same.
Booker said after Game 3 that it seems like every possession is a different look, and in Game 3, Los Angeles threw everything at Phoenix.
This has needed a Herculean effort from Booker, who resurrected the offence in Game 2 and did it again in Thursday’s victory.
It is a result of need. Through three games, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton have not kept their part of the deal, requiring both Booker and Durant to play significant minutes. Furthermore, Paul’s minutes have increased significantly. He’s averaging 39.0 minutes per game, which is seven minutes more than he did in the Suns’ last playoff series versus Dallas.
Outside of Booker, one of the other three players will have to step up if Phoenix is to win this series. It will be less of a dog battle if two do. Is it all three? Done in five minutes. Yes, even if Kawhi Leonard (knee) and Paul George (knee) are both out for Saturday’s Game 4. Torrey Craig has been outstanding as the team’s fifth starter. The bench just had their finest game ever. That three has to get their engines revved up.
It’s incredible that Durant’s level of play seems “fine,” but when you look at his stats, he’s averaging 26.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 51% in the series. That reflects the expectations placed on him as a top-three basketball talent on the world.
The Suns’ task has been to maximise Durant’s effect via continuous participation. Head coach Monty Williams noted after the game that Durant is a “expensive decoy” because he operates as a spacer in the offence and draws additional attention when he’s in the action.
Second bodies were thrown at Durant much more in Game 3. He performed well when deployed inside the flow. He is an expert at reading the floor, well aware of how the additional defender’s option might benefit his teammates.
We’ll get to how Durant was efficiently breaking down traps with Ayton later, but he didn’t spend enough time in the offence.
On Friday, I asked Williams how he balances taking use of Durant’s gravity as a spacer vs someone more immediately placed into the play. He added that part of it is due to how often Los Angeles is tough with Durant off the ball prior.
“It’s hard,” Williams said. “They’re doing an excellent job of keeping their hands on his body.” He is subjected to a great quantity of touch. There are other ways to look at it. You may gripe about the physicality or utilise it to space the floor, which I believe is one of the reasons Book has so much room to operate. Kevin becomes irritated.
Because there are moments when we see a level of physicality that may or may not be called, but having been in these circumstances previously, we all have to have a degree of team composure and get through it and see how we can utilise it to our advantage.”And, as I have said, I believe Book and DA were receivers, as did Chris. He had many open shots that he usually knocks down. Much of this is due to Kevin being on the floor. I need to find out how to free him up, but I believe Kevin, as upset as he might be, realises the advantage of having someone draped all over him for 48 minutes.”
When it comes to Durant’s dissatisfaction with the roughness, Williams smartly pointed out how Durant has handled with it in the past.
“I try to do my job as a coach to make him feel better,” he added. “He still had a few points.” I don’t check the stat sheet for points throughout the game. I usually watch at rebounds and turnovers, so I had no idea he had 28 points last night. ‘Man, how’d he get ’em?’ I think. He had someone wrapped over him the whole night. He just seeks methods to influence the game.”
With longer rounds expected for Phoenix, finding out how to properly include Durant in the midst of the playoffs is clearly proving to be a difficult issue. The Suns will do themselves many favours if they can make significant progress with it over the course of this series.
We knew the Clippers were going to lay out the red carpet for Paul to hit 3s at some point, and it was most clear in Game 3. Paul alternated between taking the 3s and driving in the open lane. In all areas, he struggled.
Despite the fact that he has excelled at catch-and-shoot throughout his career, Looks, he hesitates at times, and his track record from the previous playoffs also makes it a simple option for the Clippers to assist on Booker or Durant.
As Los Angeles hung on in the fourth quarter, Paul went 1-for-4 in these scenarios.
This is the kind of role Paul had been preparing for all season. The time has come. He needs to capitalise on more opportunities.
The Suns have all but given up on deploying Ayton in the post. Even when up against smaller lineups. They’ve identified the best possibilities as the traps set by Booker and Durant. Ayton, on the other hand, may still have an influence on those sequences in the short roll. He made significant progress there last season and is capable of scoring in certain areas.
He accomplished some of this in Game 3, but he has to be more consistent in capitalising on traps.
What matters much more is how Ayton punishes the Clippers for going small. For the last nine minutes of Game 3, Los Angeles used an unprecedented five-guard lineup. It’s as if someone double-dog dared Lue to push the limits of his series modifications.
The Suns used their regular lineup. After a dismal effort as an inside defender in the first three quarters, Ayton found himself in no-man’s land a few occasions.
Ayton, of course, shined defensively against a five-out Clippers lineup in the 2021 Western Conference Finals two years ago. They couldn’t take him off the court, and he continued to make them pay. We know what he’s capable of, as usual.
On the offensive glass, he had an impact in that series. If the Clippers use this five-guard lineup again, Ayton should catch virtually every Suns miss. I don’t make bold statements like that lightly, but the tallest Clipper on the team was 6-foot-5 Terance Mann, who weighed 215 pounds.
On Thursday, Ayton had two huge ones against that bunch.
He must to contribute on both sides of the ball and cover for his on-ball defenders when the point-of-attack juice isn’t there.
In Game 3, the Clippers attempted 45% of their shots at the rim, ranking them in the 98th percentile on Cleaning the Glass. Phoenix won the numbers game at the foul line and on the boards, but Los Angeles made up ground there and will reclaim it if it can score that much at the rim again.