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5 areas for improvement for Suns in Game 3 vs. Clippers

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
April 20, 2023

LOS ANGELES — Thanks to a bounce-back Game 2 performance, the Phoenix Suns have evened their first-round series with the LA Clippers. Unfortunately, they lost home-court advantage in a stunning Game 1 defeat, keeping the pressure on this new-look contender to sustain that Game 2 momentum by stealing one on the road.

The Suns looked more like themselves on Tuesday, with Devin Booker and Kevin Durant going off in the scoring column and making plays for their teammates, all while allowing the Chris Paul-Deandre Ayton pick-and-roll go to work. However, their offensive process was eerily similar to Game 1, and for most of the first half, it felt like Phoenix was heading for the danger zone faster than Kenny Loggins.

The biggest difference between Games 1 and 2 was shots falling. And while it’s reassuring that Durant hasn’t had a defining game in this series yet like Kawhi Leonard or Booker, there are always areas for a team to improve after a playoff win. Bearing all that in mind, here are five key areas the Suns need to focus on as the series shifts back to LA.

1. Better traps on Kawhi Leonard

After Leonard torched the Suns for 38 points on 13-of-24 shooting in Game 1, coach Monty Williams hinted his team would be more aggressive in throwing junk defenses at the Clippers star in Game 2.

“I think any time you play against Kawhi, you want to be aggressive with him,” Williams said. “We were aggressive with our shift defense. A lot of his shots were contested 2s, and based on all the analytics, that’s the shot you want to give up. We don’t want to give up that many, so there’s obviously some things that we have to do better. I’ll leave it at that.”

Leonard was elite in getting to his spots, draining tough midrange looks against Torrey Craig, Kevin Durant and Ish Wainright. No matter how much size or length Phoenix tried to cover him with, he got whatever he wanted in the series opener.

“That’s what they’re doing with Kawhi, he gets it at the nail, it’s a tough place to double-team,” Williams explained. “It reminds me of back in the day with Dirk [Nowitzki], when he played at the nail. That’s a tough spot to try to double-team.”

The Suns’ adjustment to address the Kawhi problem in Game 2 was immediately trapping him whenever he’d get a touch on the perimeter or even the baseline.

“He’s gonna score his points, he’s gonna touch the ball, get to his spots, that’s how great he is,” Kevin Durant explained. “But just make it as tough as you can on him, we can live with the results of that.”

Throwing new looks at Leonard was crucial to keep him on his toes, but it wasn’t totally effective either. As is the case with most superstars who have seen every defensive coverage in the book, Kawhi adjusted to the double-teams and started making plays out of them — or even through them:

“It wasn’t as good as we need to be,” Williams said. “We allowed him to split a number of trapping opportunities, and that’s a ‘no no’ when it comes to trapping. If you were blitzing a pick-and-roll, you wouldn’t want the guard to split it. You got two guys behind the guy with the ball, and now you’re at a deficit.”

Whether he was drop-stepping right through the middle of the double-team, making a quick pass out to let his teammates swing the ball to the open man, or simply dribbling past the double for an easy paint shot, Leonard made the right plays. The Suns did a better job on him, but the Klaw still finished with 31 points and 7 assists on 11-of-20 shooting.

So far in this series, he’s averaging 34.5 points and 6.0 assists per game on 54.5 percent shooting. The Suns have to keep showing him different looks with blitzes and double-teams, but they need to be more effective in Game 3. As you may have noticed in the clip above, LA missed a ton of those looks, but those were the types of high-quality shots that are more likely to drop for the role players at home.

“It’s something that we have to continue to mix in, but we have to be way more sound in how we do it,” Williams said. “He’s seen every defense, so you’re not going to trick him. And he’s so strong with the ball, when you do put two guys on him, you gotta take away something. I thought we gave him the option to pass out of it last night to the other side, and that hurt us a bit.”

2. Suns should let Deandre Ayton play up

For the most part, the Suns have Deandre Ayton playing in drop coverage. It’s a fairly confusing tendency given:

  1. His mobility on the perimeter
  2. The arrival of Kevin Durant offering secondary rim protection with another 7-footer on the back line
  3. The fact that DA is hardly an imposing shot-blocker as it is

In Game 2, part of the Suns’ heightened aggression stemmed from finally playing Ayton further up in pick-and-roll coverage.

“It’s just something we feel like we need to mix in,” Williams said. “His efficiency — in reference to Kawhi — is so off the chart. You can’t catch every raindrop, but you can try to take away some of his options and try to make it tough on him.”

With Durant lurking on the back line, Ayton can be more aggressive and put that lateral foot speed to use on the perimeter. In this example, DA is practically trapping, and although Russell Westbrook gets to the free-throw line as a result, the Suns did their job in getting the ball out of Leonard’s hands before an unfavorable call.

Even on a play like this, a more aggressive hedge that’s closer to the level can disrupt what the Clippers are trying to do:

Ayton is the X-factor that may ultimately determine the Suns’ ceiling. Phoenix needs to use his defensive skill-set to its fullest capabilities, especially since Durant’s secondary rim protection makes it easier to do so.

3. Clean up the Suns’ defensive rebounding

It wasn’t as big an issue in Game 2 because the Suns’ offense overshadowed everything else, but through the first two games, the Clippers have pulled down 27 offensive rebounds. Phoenix only has 13.

“I still think they had too many offensive rebounds, but it was more of a conscious effort to hit guys and make those extra effort plays,” Durant said after Game 2. “They got undersized guys flying in from the 3-point line because we’re helping off of ’em. So we gotta be aware of just looking over there and boxing ’em out.”

So far, this has been a complete role reversal from the regular season, when the Suns ranked fifth in offensive rebounding percentage and eighth in second-chance points. The Clippers, meanwhile, were 21st and 26th in those respective categories.

“I think for us coming into the series, it was a big point of emphasis — just make sure we keep ’em off the glass,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “They went from 25th to sixth, I think, in offensive rebounding. So we know [Josh] Okogie, we know [Torrey] Craig’s gonna crash from the corners. Even CP’s crashing now, and with Ayton as well. So we just gotta make sure we’re hitting bodies.”

The Clippers have won this battle for the offensive glass in both games. They’re up 33-22 in second-chance points, and limiting those opportunities remains a point of emphasis that extends beyond just DA from Phoenix’s perspective.

“Not all of it [is on him], but he is a big part of it,” Williams said of Ayton before Game 2. “He understands that. He took it to heart the other day. The thing I like about DA is he didn’t blame anybody. We talked yesterday, and he’s like, ‘Coach, that was me.’ But I’m not of that mindset, even though we know he’s an unreal rebounder. We feel like there were a number of opportunities to contest and stay and get the rebound.”

Keeping Zubac and Mason Plumlee off the O-boards is pivotal, but so is putting a body on the Clippers guards who are being ignored on the perimeter like Russell Westbrook. It’ll take a team effort to fix an issue that’s been an Achilles heel for years now.

4. Improve the math by generating more 3s and FTs

The ironic thing about the reaction to Game 1 compared to Game 2 is the Suns’ offensive procedure was fairly similar. Although Phoenix did a better job of letting its two best players go to work, a lot of it really just came down to making and missing shots.

Just look at how many shots they took from the midrange in Games 1 and 2 compared to the regular season. The biggest divide was the leap from 32 percent accuracy on long middies in Game 1 to a staggering 72.7 percent shooting in Game 2:

  • Short midrange Game 1: 18-30 FG (35% frequency, 60% accuracy)
  • Short midrange Game 2: 16-28 FG (32% frequency, 57.1% accuracy)
  • Short midrange regular season: 26.6% frequency (1st), 44.7% accuracy (12th)
  • Long midrange Game 1: 8-25 FG (27% frequency, 32% accuracy)
  • Long midrange Game 2: 16-22 FG (26% frequency, 72.7% accuracy)
  • Long midrange regular season: 13.8% frequency (2nd), 43.8% accuracy (7th)
  • Midrange overall Game 1: 26-55 FG (62% frequency, 47.3% accuracy)
  • Midrange overall Game 2: 32-50 FG (59% frequency, 64% accuracy)
  • Midrange overall regular season: 40.4% frequency (1st), 44.4% accuracy (11th)

This is an elite team of Midrange Assassuns, but they probably won’t be that lights out from the midrange for the rest of the series, even if the Clippers stay in drop coverage. And look, knocking down middies is great! The ability to get a contested bucket is huge come playoff time.

But the Suns keep running into the same math problem when they don’t get to the rim or generate 3s on top of those middies. So far in the series, the Clippers are 21-for-61 from downtown (34.4 percent), while the Suns are 16-for-43 (37.2 percent). Phoenix is shooting a better percentage, but they’re averaging nine fewer attempts per game. That’s not a winning formula, even as they improved from 19 attempts in Game 1 to 24 attempts on Tuesday.

“Yeah, a few more,” Williams said of the Suns’ long range attempts in Game 2. “I think they are giving us a few of them, as Torrey is outside, JO’s outside, and they’re plugging the paint a bit with Zubac. And so that allows for us to get some corner 3s, but any time you can get the ball in your best players’ hands and space the floor well, I think it allows for you to be more efficient.”

Booker’s Game 2 masterclass helped Phoenix generate paint touches and drive-and-kicks, but one of the biggest adjustments they needed to make — generating more 3s — wasn’t quite as profound as it needs to be moving forward.

Really, the only guy who’s actually letting it fly and doing it efficiently is Torrey Craig.

“Craig made just about every big shot for us tonight,” Paul said after Game 2.

“We need him to continue to be confident and shoot the ball,” Durant added. “He understands that they’re gonna play a little gimmicky and throw a big on him, leave him wide open and give him the 3, so he’s gotta make ’em pay. Great job of that thus far.”

The “thus far” part is the potential concern. Craig shot a career-high 39.5 percent from deep, but he shouldn’t be shouldering the 3-point load. As fantastic as he’s been, Craig (7-for-12) probably shouldn’t account for nearly half of the team’s 3-point makes (16) and more than one quarter of their attempts (43) in the series.

They need to find a way to get Chris Paul more of the catch-and-shoot looks he was draining in recent weeks, but the Clippers have been forcing him into the midrange.

“It’s funny, I’ve been practicing 3s like crazy thinking they was gonna leave me open like them last few games, and then I spent the whole day watching all my shots against the Clippers throughout the season, and they was really giving me middies,” Paul said. “So just refocusing. They’re not really leaving me for the 3, but we done played against them a lot. So just get to your spots.”

If the Clippers tweak their drop coverage, Paul needs to be prepared to take and make those spot-up 3s again. Because right now, the Suns are fighting an uphill battle against basic math: Three is worth more than two.

“I don’t know, I think we just be playing basketball,” Paul said. “You think about KD, everybody always calls him a basketball purist. We got a lot of us like that. If a 2 is open, we’re gonna take it. If the 3 open, we’re gonna take that too. And so we just hoop and try to make sure we got the most points at the end of the game.”

Another thing that would help them on that quest? Closing the gap on that darn free-throw disparity. The Suns have actually gotten to the line 47 times in these first two games, the fourth-highest total among all playoff teams. The problem is LA has gotten there 60 times, which is the second-highest total. Game 2’s 31-14 disparity helped the Clippers hang around in the second half.

“That’s one thing we can get better at is reach-in fouls,” Durant said. “We’re playing good defense, but at the end, we reach in and get a foul. I think that’ll help us out.”

5. Get off to a better start

“We all know we have to start better,” Williams said after Game  1.

He was not wrong.

In Game 1, the Suns lost the first quarter 30-18. In Game 1, they lost the opening period 29-24. That puts them at a -17 so far in first quarters, and while they were able to scratch and claw their way out of another double-digit, first-half deficit in Game 2, they won’t have the support of a roaring home crowd behind them next time.

On the road against a Clippers team that already stole one in Phoenix, the Suns have to come out with a sense of urgency in Game 3. Sometimes the biggest X-factor is just playing harder and defending the guy in front of you.

“People talk about adjustments all the time, and we make them all throughout the game, but a lot of basketball is just being able to sit down and guard the ball, or being able to contest the shot,” Williams said after Game 2. “That was something that we all felt. And we have a saying here, we call each other up, not out. And so everybody felt it, and we just executed a lot better.”

In hostile territory, the first step to winning is avoiding another first-half deficit that could quickly spiral on the road.

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