Phoenix Suns: Analyzing What’s Worked and What Hasn’t vs Clippers

Phoenix Suns (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Phoenix Suns (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

Phoenix Suns vs Los Angles Clippers: What’s gone on so far…

We’ve all seen playoff runs that just possess a certain type of energy, a “feel good” type of energy that screams, “this is our year.” Teams that exude this are usually somewhat unexpected, and might not always win, but regardless they bless us with a myriad of special moments.

The last teams I can think of that gave off this feeling were the 2019 Toronto Raptors, and 2020 Miami Heat. They both were extremely fun, and gave us a front row seat to their respective stars realizing their full potential, accompanied by select role players breaking out and showing star potential for themselves.

However, the special thing about these playoffs is that there are at least three teams like this in our final four. The Atlanta Hawks especially come to mind, but today, the focus is on this year’s Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers teams, who are currently battling in the WCF.

Now between Arizona’s team of destiny whose time in the sun has been long overdue, and LA’s scorned sibling team who’s path of revenge has left fans confused and lost for words, how are these squads stacking up against one another through the first 3 games? Here’s a recap of it all.

Phoenix Suns Game 1: An absolute eruption

Game 1 was close, but it also came as a bit of a punch in the mouth for the Clippers, who were not only without a Kawhi Leonard, but had just come off of a series closer only two days prior. Who they got that win against is important in this equation because simply put—it did not prepare them properly for Phoenix.

Rudy Gobert offensive woes in the Western Conference Semifinals allowed the Clippers to viciously target him on defense, as he struggled to take advantage of their undersized lineup. Deandre Ayton on the other hand, decided to go for the throat as soon as he stepped onto the floor, finishing with 20 points, while only missing four shots.

Ayton’s ability to pop out and cover along the perimeter compared to Gobert’s stiffness made the biggest difference. Additionally, the former Arizona Wildcat’s proficiency against “small ball” and against spark plug DeMarcus Cousins forced him to offer Ivica Zubac more minutes, which only made things worse.

The Clippers were letting Devin Booker get to his spots and play at his normal pace all game. He punished them for it, finishing with 19 points in the first half, and in the second half, things got only easier. Almost all of his buckets during the final two periods came as pull up jumpers, in open space and off of screens. This all happened thanks to how low Zubac dropped in his pick-and-roll coverage.

On top of this, Booker dominated at an extremely fast pace, often getting full heads of steam off those high screens into the elbow area. This made Zubac’s drop coverages even more detrimental to LA’s defensive efforts.

Late into the game, you could see the Clippers ran out of gas for stretches. While neglecting to die out completely, you could tell fatigue was settling in particularly on defense.

The Clippers began attempting to trap DBook after he got hot midway through the third quarter, but consequently gave up at least three corner 3-pointers following lazy rotations, helping shift the momentum in Phoenix’s favor. This came in clear contrast to the Suns, who created multiple transition attempts off of strong defensive stops.

Fatigue also became clear offensively down the stretch, as in the last five minutes, half of LA’s shot attempts fell short off the rim. Paul George going off for 34 points helped them stay in the game, but overall, the Clippers role players lacked juice, eventually causing them to surrender Game 1.

Phoenix Suns Game 2: Speed is pain (The Valley-Oop)

Tyronn Lue has been monumentally proficient with his adjustments this postseason, and they started to poke through in Game 2. He made the decision to start Patrick Beverley on Booker and Zubac at center, despite his struggles defensively in the last game.

This gave the Clippers the best of both worlds defensively. Beverley started out the game with one goal, to make sure Booker stayed out of rhythm. Even with early fouls aside (which may have actually been a part of the plan), Zubac positioned himself just a bit higher on every DBook pick-and roll, making Booker hesitate on and pass up on his usual pull up attempts.

This also made it possible for either Beverley or Terrence Mann to catch up with Booker after each screen, making any shots which he did attempt that much more difficult. This showed through his numbers, as he only shot 5-16 from the floor, scoring 20 points for the night. And on that note, Zubac playing drop coverage or not, it’s not to take away from Bev’s insane efforts to stay with Booker, as he had multiple plays of outright stopping the Phoenix guard one-on-one.

Book definitely had an off night, but the team still pulled through, largely due to the efforts of Cameron Payne, who scored a career high 29 points to go along with 9 assists. Simply put, Payne got whatever he wanted. He was far too quick for any perimeter defender or small ball center that the Clippers threw at him.

Getting floaters off of screens before Zubac could even think to step up and charging to the rim thanks to some unconventional footwork and quick horizontal bursts, it all combined into a hot shooting night for Payne. His up-tempo style even made it feel like we were watching the “seven seconds or less” offense once again.

This forced the Clippers to defend out of their element all night. Not to forget the hyper efficient and eventual hero Deandre Ayton, he also enjoyed a great night, finishing with 24 points, 14 rebounds, and only missing 3 shots all game.

On defense, this entire Suns roster did a good job being just physical enough with George, who had a relatively subpar shooting night. Special shoutouts go to Mikal Bridges and Ayton in that regard for sticking with him and always working to contest shots. Although George did get to the line a decent amount, he also had an off night in that area as well, going 5-10 for the game.

After the first half, the game continued as a back-and-forth bout. Both teams pulled out all the stops on defense, while some controversial calls were made, taking about an extra 36 hours to review I might add.

After one of those long reviews, the ball ended up in the hands of George. He was promptly fouled and proceeded to very uncharacteristically miss both free throws, giving the Suns an extra possession to win the game. The Suns frantically threw together an empty possession that then left Phoenix with one more possession, passing the ball in from the baseline with under a second to play.

The rest would soon go down in history, showing head coach Monty Williams’s genius as he called the play of the year. Booker set a perfect screen, Jae Crowder threw a perfect pass, and Ayton finished it all perfectly, slamming home a buzzer-beating and game-winning alley-oop.


Phoenix Suns Game 3: Schemes coming to fruition

I mentioned before that Tyronn Lue made it a priority to put Beverley on Booker to start Game 2— Game 3 was no different. Pat Bev once again proved that while undersized, he can perfectly irritate star players needing to be stopped.

So far in  this series, Booker has shot only 4-15 while primarily guarded by Beverley. This is a perfect example of why player matchups matter so heavily in basketball. For example, if you compare Beverley’s defense on Luka Doncic vs Booker, you’ll notice a stark difference.

Doncic and Booker are both the elite of the elite when it comes to scoring, but they play at entirely different rhythms, and for an on-ball defensive specialist, that means the world. Even if you go back and watch the highlights from that Clippers vs Mavs series, you’ll see Doncic immediately claim the advantage on Beverley, stepping up and get into his body. This can come in the form of: bumping him off, keeping him on his hip, calling for high screens to force a chase, post ups, and more. But Booker instead tries to take him off the dribble. He likes to wait and set up beforehand, basically standing in a face-up position for a bit, and then attempting to get a move off him.

This tendency to face-up with the ball and then decide what moves to make allows Beverley to stay attached at favorable angles. When he’s able to remain attached, he’s able to take advantage of his greatest defensive tools: his natural quickness and strength. Using that quickness and strength he can then make sure Booker won’t be able to blow by him like some bigger players, forcing him into tough, smothered pull-up shots that can go blocked or stripped.

Now, this comparison is not foolproof however. Luka is bigger than DBook. However I do think it’s fair to point out that Booker is somewhat eliminating his own size advantage and making it easier for Beverley to bother him again with his face-up offensive attack. Booker finished this game on another poor shooting night, posting just 15 points, going 5-21 from the field and 1-7 from outside.

All that being said, this is the game Chris Paul returned…and also the game Payne went out with an ankle injury. Now you’re starting to figure out why they lost this one.

This was CP3’s first game back in 11 days, so naturally he was a bit rusty, especially being thrown into the middle of an intense playoff series. He finished the night with 15 points and 12 assists, however he did so very inefficiently, shooting 5-19 FG.

Paul has always been a player that loves to control a game’s tempo, so naturally the pace of the offense with him on the floor slowed down. This can work, and is often needed in the clutch. But this time around, all the checks and balances normally contributing to that slowed down pace were discombobulated.

Payne was not there for half the game, so the team had few options to play stylistically, and Paul was not winning his one-on-one matchups or hitting open shots, so the pace he instilled actually worked to Phoenix’s detriment.

This allowed the Clippers defense to properly load up on Booker every time down the floor, and limit the transition looks which Phoenix had relied upon all series. They ended up losing by 14 points following a massive run for the Clipper midway through the final period.

Phoenix Suns: Going forward

Moving on from this first loss at Staples Center is rather simple for this team. In my opinion, all they need to do to solve the Booker/Beverley problem is to put DBook in more advantageous situations from the jump, making it harder for Bev to speed him up. This would call for the Suns to run Booker off of  screens far more often, and make posting up Beverley a priority. Make him either chase, or put him in a position where he cannot make up for the size difference. Basically, just don’t let a pesky on-ball defender be comfortable on ball.

After all, we have seen Booker force Beverley into foul trouble using similar tactics. But as for CP3 and Payne, I think it is safe to assume that they’ll both be back to looking like themselves sooner rather than later.

Next. 3 Ways the Phoenix Suns can Stop the Clippers From Making this a Series. dark

CP3 will bounce back as he reestablishes his rhythm and with more conditioning. I doubt Payne will seriously lose a step unless the injury becomes very serious. If it does, then CP3 will have to be supercharged, if they want to close out this series.