LOS ANGELES — After stealing two consecutive road games in their first-round playoff series, the Phoenix Suns are one win away from advancing to the conference semifinals of the 2023 NBA Playoffs.
Facing a depleted LA Clippers team missing its two best players helps, but the Suns — who have only played 12 games with a healthy Kevin Durant — are slowly gaining valuable experience together. This matchup got a heck of a lot easier the minute Kawhi Leonard joined Paul George on the injury report, but against a gritty, physical, well-coached team, the Clippers forced the Suns to earn both wins in LA.
As the series shifts back to Phoenix for a potential closeout Game 5, it’s worth taking one more look back at Sunday’s 112-100 victory in Game 4, and the road trip in general, to pinpoint a few things we’re learning about the Suns — aside from Devin Booker playing some of the best basketball of his career, of course.
1. Chris Paul can still close
Chris Paul having to adjust to spending more time off the ball is not a new storyline. He struggled with it to start the season, had to find the balance between facilitating and spot-up shooting, and it wasn’t until Kevin Durant’s arrival that his elite catch-and-shoot numbers got the attention they deserved.
But it’s been an ongoing learning process with a superstar like KD added to the mix, and in Game 3, Paul failed to take advantage of those quality looks, shooting 5-for-18 overall and 1-for-8 from downtown. Before Game 4, coach Monty Williams said it was probably just an off night, but admitted the adjustment process was part of it too.
“What I love is when we’re in what we call ‘shell shots,’ the ball just keeps moving around right to him without hesitation, and I think that builds rhythm, so if it happens today, I suspect he’ll knock those shots down,” Williams said prophetically. “I like the fact that it doesn’t matter if we make or miss, we still play the same way when those opportunities present themselves. But to your point, I think it still is different for him, but it’s something that he’s gotten used to this year.”
In Game 4, it looked a lot more like something Paul was used to again. The soon-to-be 38-year-old finished with 19 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks and 3 steals, shooting 8-for-17 from the floor and 3-for-6 from long range. But what made his performance special was how he took over the fourth quarter, dropping 12 of his 19 points in the final frame with a bevy of tough, contested shots.
Even his totally unnecessary turnaround jumper — which drew incredulous laughs out of Durant and Booker because he thought he needed to beat the shot clock — felt preordained. He threw up a prayer, but who better to answer it than the Point God?
“It was just clutch,” Torrey Craig said. “It seemed like every shot was a big shot, and the one he hit in the corner was ridiculous. I told him that was luck though, but it was a great shot. I was glad to see him taking over late.”
Even after Game 3, Williams said he’s never concerned Paul’s ability to put those kinds of performances to bed.
“I’m just grateful for his mental stamina in these types of environments where he’s missing shots one game and he comes back the next game and he just does what Chris does,” Williams said.
Now that he’s flanked by Booker, Durant and a rim-rolling big like Deandre Ayton, striking the right balance between orchestrating the offense and letting others do the work is still very much a work in progress. This is also perhaps the most difficult time of year to undergo such a chemistry experiment. There are times where Paul dribbles the air out of the ball or turns down catch-and-shoot 3s, proving that old habits die hard for an 18-year veteran who’s used to holding the rock.
“Playin’ this game for a long time, we learn in different ways,’ Paul said. “I’ve never played with this much talent, where people are doubling off of me. And like I said last game, I’ve never shot that many open shots. So it’s something that I’m getting used to, trying to figure out when to pick your spots, when to be aggressive and figuring this thing out on the fly.”
But Saturday provided a nice reminder that every time you feel tempted to doubt Chris Paul, he finds ways to respond. He’s been doing this for a while now, after all:
Most 10-point 4th Quarters in the Playoffs since 2021:
Steph Curry 9
Chris Paul 9 pic.twitter.com/F42hHOLr4A
— Karan (@karanjn2) April 22, 2023
Surrounded by more talent than he’s ever had, his ability to balance playmaking and off-ball duties will be pivotal. But if Game 4 is any indication, he’s still capable of making defenses pay for putting all their attention on Book and Durant.
“We’re still growing, we’re still trying to learn each other, still trying to figure out the best way for us to operate around each other,” Durant said. “But it always helps when the shots go in.”
2. Suns need to get Deandre Ayton more involved
Through the first four games of this series, Ayton is averaging a healthy double-double of 14.8 points and 11.3 rebounds on 54.2 percent shooting. He’s also averaging 12.0 field goal attempts per game, slightly down from his regular-season average (13.2 per game).
However, even while putting up respectable numbers, it’s been an up-and-down series for DA thus far. As the playoffs shift to a more iso-heavy style of basketball, Ayton’s inability to create much of his own offense limits his potential output.
“They know your plays, they’re taking away a lot of your sets, playing more physical, so you gotta fend for yourself out there sometimes,” Durant said of playoff basketball. “It’s gonna go back between being a team game and maybe an individual game here and there, so I think we do a good job of having a balance.”
Still, Ayton looked a lot better in Game 4, and even in Game 3, where he only went 4-for-9, Williams believed he contributed in ways that didn’t show up on the stat sheet.
“I just think he’s finding ways to impact winning,” Williams said after Game 3. “In Game 2, his midrange shot kept us in the game and allowed us to gain some momentum and footing. Last night, he wasn’t making the shots that he typically makes, but he still found a way to impact the game. The rebound at the end was huge. I think his size in the paint, we can use better.”
Using his size better was certainly a priority, since the Clippers like going small in spurts and Ayton’s offense had largely been confined to midrange jumpers through the first two games. Drop coverage was the expected response to defending the Suns’ “pick your poison” dilemma, and LA let DA fire away from the midrange.
The results weren’t as impressive as the clip suggests, but the four buckets he made in the second quarter of Game 2 were enough to keep the Suns afloat and force Tyronn Lue to adjust. Suddenly, Ivica Zubac and Mason Plumlee were playing further up when DA caught the ball in the short roll, and in those instances, his reluctance to attack off the dribble felt like a weak point.
“They’re crowding the paint with him,” Williams explained. “Sometimes he has room in the pocket to maneuver, and there are times where the defensive guy is coming so high that as soon as he catches it, he’s playing in a crowd. So that can be an adjustment.”
Ayton made that adjustment in Games 3 and 4, putting the ball down to close the distance between himself and the drop coverage, or even get past defenders who were playing further up due to the threat of his middy. Quite a few of these are misses, but the process matters more than the results here.
The Suns need Ayton to attack these situations to avoid the offense from stalling out on his catches near the paint, and they need to continue running pick-and-rolls to find him for easy looks at the basket as well.
“They change it up on me, so I change it up on it on them,” Ayton said. “They started off in the drop, I had my middies. Now they’re pressing up, so I’m putting the ball on the ground and trying to see what I can get out of it.”
On Saturday, Ayton finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds…but 11 of those 15 points and 10 of his 13 shot attempts came in the first half. A somewhat reserved DA gave a confusing response after the game when asked about his coach praising him for finding other ways to impact winning.
“I don’t know, I really don’t know what I do,” Ayton said. “I just do what I got drafted for — rebound. That’s about it. Try to protect the rim.”
Whether that was an overly humble response or an answer meant to convey that he’s disgruntled over his current role, the Suns need to keep him involved throughout the course of the game. His gravity is essential to the offense, but keeping him engaged as a potential X-factor could be just as crucial.
3. Damion Lee needs to get Landry Shamet’s minutes
The Suns’ bench rotation was a complete mystery heading into the playoffs, but after a 2-0 trip to LA, it’s clear Williams is sticking with a nine-man rotation, barring foul trouble. The other 3-4 guys off the bench right now are Josh Okogie, Bismack Biyombo and some combination of Damion Lee or Landry Shamet.
That should change once Cam Payne returns, but it’s pretty clear who should be getting the minutes between Lee and Shamet in the meantime.
“It’s huge for us to try to figure out that position,” Williams said. “Because you take Chris out, and then you put a lot of pressure on the guys around or outside of Chris to handle the ball and facilitate. We feel like D-Lee, Landry, Josh, all those guys can do it, but it is a crucial segment of time.”
In Game 3, Shamet put up a goose egg in four minutes on 0-of-2 shooting. He produced one steal and played decent defense, but Lee took over his minutes in the second half and put up 8 points in 11 minutes, going 2-for-3 from long range.
“His ability to knock down shots but also space the floor, and then I thought he had a really nice 0.5 drive for a foul,” Williams said of Lee’s performance. “He’s a guy that’s always ready, and I talked to him a couple of games ago and I just said, ‘Be ready.’ And it was almost an insult for him, I would imagine, ’cause he’s always ready. He prepares himself for opportunities like this.”
In Game 4, neither one scored, but Lee was a +4 off the bench in 14 minutes, while Shamet was a -6 in his 5 minutes. From putting in the work when the bright lights are off to film study, Lee has been biding his time. Even something as minute as holding and shooting the ball during timeouts to get a feel for it — something he started jokingly doing as a kid to mess with referees — helps keep his mind ready.
“He’s a champion,” Durant said. “So you’ve gotta give him credit for knowing what it is to be a champion, and being a champion is just coming to work every day and giving it your all and following the game plan. I think that’s what he did when he came out there is stay ready.”
Lee only saw action in 12 games during March and April, but he’s re-established himself as a trustworthy part of the rotation — for this series, at least.
“Just reading the game, understanding how the game is going, the game flow,” Lee said. “I think that’s the beauty of coming off the bench, is, as a guy that studies the game, just seeing what’s happening out there and envisioning myself in whatever position that those guys are in.”
Even better? If Shamet’s minutes are actually nixed, he won’t be a source of trouble in the locker room.
“It’s about winning games,” Shamet said. “It’s not about me or him or JO or Jock [Landale]. Like, you could talk about the whole bench. It’s not about any one of us, it’s about all of us collectively knowing there’s gonna be moments where we’re gonna be put in games, and without D-Lee, we’re not in that position last night.”
4. Suns are punishing Clippers on O-boards and at the FT line
In the first two games, the Clippers beat the Suns 27-13 on the offensive glass and 33-22 in second-chance points — a complete role reversal compared to where those two teams ranked in those categories during the season. In Games 3 and 4, against increased physicality, the Suns won the O-boards 29-15 and the second-chance points battle 31-25.
“If a game is gonna be that physical, you have to take advantage of it,” Williams said. “We got into the bonus early a few times, but I think attacking the basket is the thing that allows for you to do that. And then when they go small, there’s not a lot of rim protection there. So we just tell our guys to get to the paint.”
More important than second-chance points, however, were the opportunities to drain the clock while clinging to fourth-quarter leads.
“That’s one of our advantages, especially when they go small,” Craig said. “We know we can try to dominate the boards with our size with DA, myself and the other guys, and that’s what we try to do.”
One such rebound came with less than a minute left in Game 3 and the Suns holding onto a six-point lead. Ayton snagged a big O-board against LA’s small-ball lineup, and Booker supplied the dagger and-1 a few seconds later.
“When they’re going five guards out there, any missed shot, I’m telling DA, ‘You should have it. There should be no guard that can box you out,'” Booker said. “And he did just that.”
Without Leonard and George, the Clippers have resorted to five-guard lineups late in games, just to mix things up with more speed and shooting. But the trade-off has been offensive rebounding, and as long as the Suns can competently defend the 3-point line, Williams is comfortable with those situations.
“It is a tough lineup to guard for sure, but we do think there’s pros and cons, but more pros for us,” Williams said. “We feel like we have the players that can play in those environments, and we feel like we can rebound.”
Further adding to their advantage with the physicality has been Phoenix’s ability to rack up free throws. The Suns were 27th in free-throw attempts per game this season, but are currently averaging a league-high 30.0 attempts per game among all teams in the playoffs. They out-shot the Clippers 46-25 in Game 3 and followed it up with a 27-10 advantage in Game 4.
“I feel like we needed that,” Okogie said. “We needed to play against that physicality and see how we reacted towards it, and I feel like we took it well. I feel like we didn’t really confront the refs as much as we usually do.”
Having a massive advantage at the foul line certainly helps with that sort of thing, but the Clippers’ insistence on playing physical with Durant has opened things up for the offense, as well as KD himself, since he got to the line 11 times in both road games. That type of constant physical aggravation can be bothersome, but Durant is used to it.
“Physicality, I mean, every time I step on a court, whether it’s a pickup game or NBA game, somebody’s gonna be physical with me because of my stature,” Durant said with a smirk. “I’ve been playing through that since I was eight years old. So it ain’t nothing different, but it’s just trying to figure out what’s the best way for us to be efficient.”
5. Suns need to take care of business in Game 5
The Suns are up 3-1 with a chance to close out this first-round series at home. They’re facing a Clippers team missing their two best players, and with the Denver Nuggets poised to sweep the Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix’s second-round opponent may already be lying in wait.
It’s pivotal for them to wrap things up in Game 5, especially with the heavy minutes their superstars have been logging.
“It’s something I’ve talked to the guys about,” Williams said. “I’m watching and going over our rotation template. We did a bunch yesterday to try to figure out when we can shave those minutes because I don’t want to do what I did last game. But at the end of the day, the goal is to win the game, so there’s a balance there for sure.”
Durant (43.8 minutes per game) and Booker (43.5 minutes per game) are currently leading all players in minutes this postseason. Chris Paul (38.8 per game) isn’t far behind in eighth. That’s probably too many minutes, especially with the way the schedule was set up. The Suns have played every other day through the first four games, only getting two days of rest in between Games 4 and 5.
“Looking at the way the schedule was set up, playing every other day is not conducive to [resting guys],” Williams said after Game 4. “Part of why I did it today was we have a couple days to recover. But when you’re playing every other day in the playoffs, like, there goes load management.”
Booker and Durant have played at a high level on both ends, constantly reassuring their coach that they’re “good.” Paul, Booker and Durant have all scoffed at the idea they’re playing too many minutes as well.
Chris Paul with a fantastic answer when asked about the Suns’ heavy workload for their starters:
“This is my 18th year. You don’t get here just sitting on your ass. You work. So that’s been the coolest thing about working out with (KD) every day, and Book. We work.” pic.twitter.com/Xw5H2BrwSi
— Shane Young (@YoungNBA) April 22, 2023
More importantly, though, the team’s training staff has done the research, determining the more iso-heavy style of playoff basketball has cut down on how many miles they’re actually running out there.
Another good way to do that? Close out an inferior team at home in Game 5 to get some precious recovery time before moving on to the next round. That starts with not taking a shorthanded opponent lightly.
“Not sleep on these guys,” Ayton said. “They play hard to the end. The coach over there, he got them dudes disciplined to where they play to the end, no matter the circumstance. That’s one thing we can’t fall for, when we look good and it look like we’re comfortable and it look like they’re beaten up a little bit, they’re just gearing up for it. Close-out games are always the hardest, so I’m pretty sure they’re gonna throw an even bigger punch than the one they did today.”