The Phoenix Suns lost for the first time with Kevin Durant in the lineup Sunday night, and the timing was nothing less than inconvenient. Dropping Game 1 against the LA Clippers, the Suns lost home-court advantage of their first-round playoff series right off the bat, giving a team that’s missing its second-best player hope for a longer series.
Excluding injury, it was pretty much the worst-case scenario for the Suns on multiple fronts. Durant and Devin Booker combined to shoot 3-for-12 in the first quarter as the Clippers built a 12-point lead. Chris Paul had 10 assists and a team-high 11 rebounds, but only added 7 points on 2-of-8 shooting. Deandre Ayton was thoroughly outplayed by Ivica Zubac, Monty Williams’ rotations were confounding and the bench was as bad as its biggest critics feared.
It was a complete comedy of errors, and yet, the Suns only lost by five in the 115-100 loss. With Paul George likely to miss the entire series, Phoenix’s overwhelming talent should still win out.
However, the emphasis on the word “should” hangs a little bit heavier after the Suns looked so beatable in Game 1 — repeating a trend from last year’s second-round embarrassment against a foe they should’ve manhandled in a similar fashion. Fortunately, Sunday’s defeat featured some easily correctable mistakes, and heading into Game 2, Phoenix needs to take them into consideration.
1. Care more (A.K.A. defensive rebounding)
I promise the “analysis” here will feature more than just cliches, but watching the Clippers in Game 1, it was clear which team was more aggressive, more physical and just wanted it more. LA won the 50-50 balls it needed, came up with big hustle plays and flipped the script on Phoenix’s supposed advantage on the offensive glass.
If the Suns want to even this series up and avoid a panic-inducing 2-0 hole, they’ll need to take a page out of Leslie Mann’s book in Knocked Up:
The Clippers finished with 14 offensive rebounds, and while they only turned them into 12 second-chance points, they finished with 10 more possessions in the game than Phoenix.
“I think they had about three or four possessions where they got like four cracks at it, because we couldn’t secure the rebound,” Williams said. “And if you look at the defensive possessions, if you just get the rebound, the numbers are extremely in our favor. So we gave them 14 offensive rebounds tonight, but timely ones.”
The most timely of those came in the final minute. With the Suns trailing 109-108 and 1:08 remaining, LA snagged not one, not two, but three straight offensive rebounds before Russell Westbrook drew a shooting foul with 17 seconds left. The Suns let 51 precious seconds tick from the clock because they couldn’t corral one of three Clippers misses.
“All we need is one stop to potentially win a game, and I think it was like three times we didn’t come up with a rebound,” Torrey Craig said. “So it’s extremely frustrating.”
Heading into the series, the Suns were the team with a definitive advantage on the offensive boards. The Clippers gave them a taste of their own medicine, and one Suns player’s effort — or lack thereof — was hard to ignore.
I wish Ayton played with even 5% of Westbrook’s mentality
— sreekar (@sreekyshooter) April 17, 2023
Ivica Zubac significantly outplayed Deandre Ayton that half. Much more efficient play-finishing, more active on the glass, better attention to detail as an interior defender.
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) April 17, 2023
If Ayton plays that like that all series — Im not sure the Suns win this series
— Esfandiar Baraheni (@JustEsBaraheni) April 17, 2023
To be clear, not all of those mistakes were Deandre Ayton’s fault. Russell Westbrook’s offensive boards down the stretch came against Devin Booker and Torrey Craig, and Williams said after the game that Phoenix needs to do a better job of preventing LA’s guards from crashing.
“That’s how they’re gonna get extra possessions,” Durant added. “Ten more possessions than us. Can’t win a game like that.”
But looking at the tape, a lot of them were against Ayton, with Zubac and Mason Plumlee out-maneuvering, out-hustling or out-muscling a stationary DA.
The worst part is, when the Suns closed out defensive stops with a rebound, they were able to get out in transition effectively. The NBA’s worst fast break team finished with 25 transition points on Sunday, and the game’s momentum noticeably swung in the home team’s favor whenever they turned defense into offense.
The best example was a 15-0 run in the third quarter where the Suns turned a six-point deficit into a nine-point lead. Thirteen of those 15 points came off steals or defensive rebounds.
“We just got stops and we was able to get out and run and just play off the pass, play off the pick-and-roll, just make quick decisions once we got stops,” Durant said of the team’s 15-0 run in the third quarter. “So I think that’s the name of the game for us is getting the rebound, getting out and going and find the play from there.”
The Suns are ROLLING 🔥 pic.twitter.com/NsN42XqGZf
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) April 17, 2023
Unfortunately, the Suns failed to do it when it mattered most. Booker, Craig, KD and especially Ayton gave up second-chance opportunities, which takes a toll on the defense and team morale, especially in late-game situations.
Step one to bouncing back in Game 2? Stop coasting on superior talent and put in the work.
“No excuses now,” Booker said. “It’s that time of year, if you’re not up and ready for these, then you’re playing the wrong sport.”
2. Start Josh Okogie again
In keeping with the theme of the Suns beating themselves, Game 1’s unexpected lineup change was like a bad M. Night Shyamalan movie, throwing in a twist just for the sake of having one. It felt like Monty Williams stewed on this matchup all week, overthinking it until he finally arrived at the idea of tweaking his starting five to throw something unexpected Tyronn Lue’s way.
Individually, at least, Torrey Craig vindicated that decision. He finished with 22 points and 4 rebounds on 9-of-12 shooting, including 2-of-4 from deep. He took the open shots LA was giving him and he made 75 percent of them, which is all you could ask for in a playoff game. Even better, the Suns’ new starting lineup was a +10 in 21 minutes together.
With that being said, Craig’s insertion into the starting lineup came with some undesired ripple effects. Namely, it robbed the rotation of meaningful Josh Okogie minutes and deprived the second unit of Craig’s much-needed impact. Williams said his reasoning behind the lineup switch was to put more size on Kawhi Leonard.
“Torrey and Ish [Wainright] have done well against guys like that,” he said. “Now, nobody can stop Kawhi, but at the same time, we feel like putting size on him gives you a chance. But they screened the size off of him a lot, and so if you go back and hit him or blitz him, then you’re in rotations.”
Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but…the ploy didn’t work! Craig did fine on Leonard for most of the night, but with the Clippers sending screens his way and Kawhi being Kawhi, he still finished with a game-high 38 points on 13-of-24 shooting, including 3-of-5 from deep and 9-of-10 from the foul line. So…what are we doing here, exactly?
Okogie is much better at navigating screens off ball than Craig and Kawhi is getting open looks simply by working off the ball. Okogie obviously has a size disadvantage but if Kawhi has to bully him to score at least he’s working hard. The back screens and pin downs are too easy.
— Mike Vigil (@protectedpick) April 17, 2023
Okogie only played seven minutes and put up a goose egg, because of course he did; his offensive skill-set is a clean fit with Phoenix’s high-powered starting five, but bringing him off the bench severely limits his impact. Craig, meanwhile, can be even more of a fiend on the offensive glass coming off the bench than he was in Game 1, and if Okogie struggles offensively, they can always close with Craig instead.
It’s harder to bench a guy who just dropped 22 points on 75 percent shooting, but that might be what’s best for the rotation. Because not only did this last-minute change to a lineup that played just 14 minutes together in the regular season marginalize Okogie, but it threw the rest of the lineups out of whack.
It was unnecessary deviation from what clearly worked during Phoenix’s 8-0 stint with Durant, and it didn’t pay dividends. To that end, it’s time for the Suns to stop over-adjusting to what their opponents do and just stick with what works.
3. Suns need to run their offense
It’s strange to say this about a team that made 52.4 percent of its 2-pointers in Game 1, but the Suns missed so many makable shots from the midrange.
We knew the Clippers would be in a drop whenever Zubac or Plumlee were on the floor, and we knew they would prefer for Ayton to fire away from the midrange whenever he caught the ball there in the short roll.
What we didn’t know is the Suns would take a staggering 62 percent of their shots from the midrange, per Cleaning The Glass, with 27 percent coming from the long midrange. For reference, Phoenix took 40.4 percent of its shots from the midrange and 13.8 percent of its shots from the long midrange during the regular season.
The Suns made 47.3 percent of their middies in Game 1, but only hit on 32 percent of their long midrange attempts. Booker, Paul and Durant missed a ton of shots they normally make against the drop:
“Make shots you normally make” isn’t groundbreaking advice, so it’s worth mentioning this instead: Zubac has historically done pretty well in the drop against Phoenix. The Suns need to make LA’s 17th-ranked defense work a lot harder than they did in Game 1.
“I thought we took a couple of shots we didn’t need to take, we could have got it to the second side,” Williams said. “They were forcing us to take midrange shots in the pocket high, instead of swinging it to the second side, which is how we got the lead in the first place.”
Wouldn’t panic if I’m the Suns, because it’s asking a lot to get that Kawhi on O and that Russ on D 3 more times. But they can’t begin these game with so many one-pass shot possessions, especially if they’re mid-range pull-ups.
— Mike Prada. (PRAY-duh) (@MikePradaNBA) April 17, 2023
Come playoff time, when opponents know all your plays, it’s harder to execute. But the Suns preach about their “paint to great” approach quite often, and there was very little offense to speak of, let alone drive-and-kicks for 3s. The Suns only attempted 19 3-pointers in Game 1, and that number has to improve, even if they got to the foul line 33 times.
“I thought we allowed the way they matched us, I thought that messed with us a little bit,” Williams said. “We have to just run our stuff, and that’s what we’re gonna talk about tomorrow: Just run our stuff, no matter how they match up, and make them play against our offense. Our offense is pretty good.”
4. Maybe, possibly let Kevin Durant cook?
Speaking of good offense, the Suns have got to stop using Kevin Durant like he’s Cam Johnson. Yes, he’s an elite floor-spacer. And yes, you want the offense to be more versatile than just clearing out for KD isos every time.
But to only get your best player — and one of the greatest scorers in NBA history — one shot in the final six minutes of a playoff game is basketball malpractice. Especially when that shot was a pretty good one!
KD didn’t think it was a product of that “feeling-out” process on a new team, but rather, chalked it up to the Clippers’ double-teams and the Suns simply missing good shots down the stretch.
“I think they did a good job, when I did get it, they put the trap on me and I had to come off the ball,” Durant said. “But a lot of time I was spacing there in the corner just waiting for it, providing space for my teammates. I think we got some good looks there in the fourth, we didn’t knock some down, but we gotta give credit to Clippers.”
He’s right, but this type of usage in crunch-time is simply unacceptable for a player of his caliber:
It’s not like Durant was struggling at that point, and if you watched that entire clip in the last section where the Suns missed a bajillion midrange pull-ups, it was pretty clear they needed something different.
There’s a price to pay for stagnant offense, but when it revolves around isos for Durant, that’s still good offense! More often than not, the Clippers were perfectly fine with letting CP3 and DA take those middies down the stretch, most of which misfired:
“It was all over the place,” Williams said of the Suns’ late-game offense. “We missed shots in the paint that we typically make, but it didn’t look like there was a great flow tonight, and we gotta get more organized and run our stuff.”
In their defense, the Suns got the ball to Booker on their final (meaningful) possession. They got a matchup they’d take nine times out of 10 against Westbrook, but Russ made one hell of a play, and that was that.
Booker has long made big-time shots in moments just like this. But mistakes like that are easier to swallow if Durant gets more than one shot in the final six minutes.
So maybe just put the ball in the hands of your two best players and let them go to work? The Suns need a productive Paul and a confident DA, but not at the cost of playoff wins. At a certain point, Williams can’t favor the process over results.
I get the idea of cp Ayton spread pnr with all the spacing in the world… I do… I swear
But at some point the results have to overrule the process and you gotta go with your all world scorers
Clips kept it simple and got the late buckets https://t.co/Ax3OfV9478
— Eddie Gonzalez (@bansky) April 17, 2023
Let KD cook. With the ball in his hands. And let guys like Booker, Paul and DA make plays off of that. It’s literally what the Suns mortgaged most of their future for.
5. Play your best players, Suns
Start Okogie and play Craig significant minutes off the bench. Give Jock Landale the backup center minutes over Bismack Biyombo. Let Terrence Ross and/or T.J. Warren see if they can hack it defensively long enough to get into a rhythm on offense. These simple changes to the pecking order would allow Williams to put his best players on the court.
Ish Wainright is a true NBA success story, but with his 3-point shooting falling off a cliff these last few months, his defense isn’t impactful enough to warrant the minutes he’s getting. In Game 1, he was a -12 in seven minutes, missing both of his 3s.
Biyombo, meanwhile, is a defensive stalwart who swats anything that moves in the paint, but he can’t operate as well in the short roll:
Landale missed two free throws and a pair of wide-open jumpers, and he may have been a -8 in eight minutes, but he was nowhere near as bad as Bizzy’s -11 in just five minutes.
This is the guy who just cooked the Clippers in their final regular-season matchup last week, and he knows how to attack in the short roll. Landale snagged a few big offensive boards as well, finding Durant for one roof-shattering corner 3:
But the biggest thing is picking a bench rotation and sticking with it. Williams played 11 players total in Game 1, and one bench-heavy lineup of Booker, Okogie, Landry Shamet, Wainright and Landale fumbled its opportunity to blow the game wide-open.
With just under five minutes to go in the third quarter, Phoenix led 77-68. But as that lineup trickled in, a seven-point advantage shriveled up to one point. LA closed the period on an 11-3 spurt overall, tying up the game when the Suns were on the verge of putting it away.
“The last part of the third, I thought we gave a lot back,” Williams said. “We were up eight, and then just like that, it was a tie game. I gotta look at the film and see why.”
Spoiler alert: It’s because those guys were taking and missing shots like these:
Landale missed two open jumpers, but he wasn’t the biggest problem. Choosing him over Biyombo in the second half was the right call, but that should’ve been the call in the first place for this matchup.
“It was okay,” Williams said of Landale’s stint. “There was a couple of times, I felt like he could have got the ball to the second side. Sometimes you take that midrange free-throw shot, you gotta make that shot. But his energy is great. I thought he had a really good dive. He got to the free-throw line. So that’s something that we’ll talk about tomorrow so that we can be better.”
No, the real problem is Phoenix tried to get away with playing Okogie, Wainright and either Landale or Biyombo together, which ramped their spacing. Williams cited size and defense against the Clippers’ bench scorers as the reasoning, but the results were brutal.
That lineup with Bizzy was a -5 in two minutes. With Landale, it was a -4 in two minutes. Shamet getting 24 minutes total and being a -14 in that stretch didn’t help either.
Suns starters were +10 in 21 minutes. Only other core 4 look was Shamet (-1, 7 minutes). The 17 other 5-man combinations they used were all 3 minutes or fewer. Just no chance to establish a rhythm with any of those groups.
— Lucas (@LucasJHann) April 17, 2023
In Game 2, it’s time to stop over-strategizing and simply play the best players. No more tinkering or overcorrecting on last year’s unwillingness to give other guys a shot; play guys like Warren, Ross and Landale and stagger the lineups to minimize the harm of a bench unit that desperately needs to find its groove.