“Put your best foot forward” is timeless advice, applicable in almost any situation, playoff basketball included. So far, the Suns have taken the less advisable “better late than never” approach in their tightly contested first-round series against the Clippers. The Suns have gotten off to excruciatingly disjointed starts in these first four games, as they’ve scored 18, 24, 27, and 23 points in those first quarters.
They’ve managed to claw their way back throughout the remaining quarters and have taken a 3-1 lead because of it, but these bad starts have placed a ton of pressure on the stars to play heavy minutes. It’s imperative that the Suns figure out how to score early so they’re not playing catch-up for the rest of the game.
The Suns need to run their pick-and-roll and leverage the Ayton advantage
One of the wrinkles Ty Lue has thrown at the Suns, especially early in the game, is putting a wing on Deandre Ayton and Ivica Zubac on Torrey Craig. This has succeeded in dissuading the Suns from going to the Ayton pick and roll, their bread and butter on offense.
In the first two games, it was Leonard on Ayton, so it was understandable why they wouldn’t want one of the best defenders of all time mucking up the action. Similarly, you wouldn’t want to post up Ayton in that situation because of Kawhi’s propensity for intercepting passes.
Now that Leonard is out, Nic Batum drew the Ayton matchup in the first quarter of game 3. If the Suns are once again struggling to score, they shouldn’t hesitate to throw the ball into Ayton on a post-up against Batum or any other wing guarding him. The Suns haven’t gone to Ayton in the post much of at all in this series, but that’s a matchup he can exploit.
Additionally, the Suns can just run their normal offense and have Ayton set the screen like he usually does. Even if you’re not putting a worse defender in Zubac in the action, I think the benefit of running something that the Suns are used to would take away some of this disjointedness. Plus, forcing Zubac to stay on Craig in the corner could create second-chance board opportunities.
The Clippers actually went away from this strategy of putting a wing on Ayton in game 4, but knowing Ty Lue, he can go right back to it anytime, and the Suns have to be ready for it.
Durant needs to find his touch earlier in the game for Phoenix
Another reason the Suns have struggled so much in the first quarter is that Kevin Durant has started slow in the games, with his seven points Saturday afternoon his series first-quarter high. This was never more true than in game 1 when he went scoreless in the opening frame, but he also scored just 19 points total over the next three first quarters.
Once again, a ton of credit goes to the Clippers because they’ve done an amazing job denying Durant the ball, particularly at his favorite spot at the elbow, then aggressively doubling him when he finally gets the ball. The Suns should explore having Durant initiate the offense more in the first as a ball handler.
That’s something they’ve saved till later in the game, but it could take away a lot of the grind of getting him the ball at the elbow. Also, when you’re getting doubled in the pick and roll earlier in the clock, it’s a bit easier to play 4 on 5. We saw Durant take advantage of this several times in the third quarter of game 3 when he hit Ayton off the double for a couple of baskets in a row.
In general, it’s just a good idea to have your best players set the tone, and giving Kevin Durant the ball to open the game is a pretty easy way to do that.
The Clippers haven’t been able to take advantage of these poor starts fully, but if the Suns are to make a deep run, they’ll certainly run into someone who will. Cleaning this up now will be a huge boost to their championship hopes.