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The Phoenix Suns are a young team that’s never been in this position before — not Devin Booker, not Deandre Ayton, not Mikal Bridges and not Cam Johnson, all of whom are playing in their first postseason, and not even Chris Paul, who has never made it to an NBA Finals.
This is uncharted territory, and the Paul George-led LA Clippers won’t be going down without a fight, even with Kawhi Leonard out for the entire series so far. After winning an ugly Game 4 on the road, the Suns moved within one win of the franchise’s first Finals appearance since 1993 and five wins away from their first-ever title.
But their inexperience showed in Game 5 as they squandered a golden opportunity to close out a more desperate, resilient Clippers team that punched them in the mouth to force a Game 6. With the series shifting to Los Angeles, Phoenix should want no part of a Game 7, where their lack of playoff experience could come into play against a Clippers squad that seems to be playing better basketball right now.
Bearing all that in mind, here are three adjustments head coach Monty Williams needs to implement to close out in Game 6.
3. Play Torrey Craig over Abdel Nader
Why Monty thought the middle of the Western Conference Finals would be a good time to break in a bench piece who hasn’t played since mid-March, we’ll never know. Abdel Nader brings some straight-line driving and defensive versatility to the lineup, sure, but he also missed the final 31 games of the regular season and first 13 games of the postseason due to arthroscopic knee surgery. Part of what makes Monty great is his unwavering faith in all 15 players on his roster, but throwing Nader into the middle of the conference finals was setting him up to fail.
The results speak for themselves: In Nader’s two games and combined 14 minutes of action this series, the Suns have posted an atrocious Net Rating of minus-11.6. Meanwhile, Torrey Craig — the guy whose minutes Nader’s been stealing — has been a plus-17.1.
The Suns not sticking Craig on Paul George during those bench minutes borders on malpractice, especially after watching PG cook Nader in Games 4 and 5. Heading into Game 6, it’s time to stop messing around with the rotations. Cut it to eight, nine players at most. If Dario Saric struggles again with those backup 5 minutes against DeMarcus Cousins, play Craig at the 5 in an ultra small-ball lineup to force Boogie off the floor. If Saric is fine, get Craig’s rebounding and defense on the floor in those backup wing minutes and stop trying to make Playoff Nader a thing.
2. Run actual offense
The Clippers going small in Game 5 undoubtedly threw the Suns for a loop. Deandre Ayton, the hero of Game 4 (and most of the playoffs, for that matter), was played off the floor. Phoenix’s defense was spread out and picked apart off the dribble, resulting in a 58-32 Clippers advantage in points in the paint — an area the Suns dominated by 58 points through the first four games.
While LA’s small-ball lineup and Phoenix’s poor point-of-attack defense created multiple problems on that end, the Suns still had multiple chances to steal Game 5 … but could never get over the hump because the offense was such a mess.
The reason? The Suns got in a bad habit of hunting mismatches during their second-round series against the Denver Nuggets (more on this in a minute). The problem is, those mid-range shots aren’t currently falling. The now-injured Ivica Zubac did a great job contesting those looks against a rusty Chris Paul, and now the Clippers’ small-ball lineup with extreme switchability eradicates most of the disadvantages Phoenix keeps gunning for.
So instead of trying to single out mismatches and forcing bad shots on those switches, the Suns need to get back to running their 0.5 offense that’s predicated on ball and player movement. When was the last time we saw Phoenix’s patented Spain pick-and-roll? Or side pick-and-rolls? Or literally any sets that weren’t a simple screen targeting a mismatch that ended in a contested middie?
The disappearances of the Suns’ two starting wings haven’t helped, but they trace back in large part to the ball sticking as Paul and Devin Booker repeatedly put up contested jumpers. Mikal Bridges has only scored in double figures twice, averaging 8.6 points per game for the series, but he’s also only taking 7.4 field-goal attempts per game (down from 10.8 per game last series and 9.2 per game in the first round). Jae Crowder can’t hit the broad side of a barn right now (6-for-26 from deep in the series), but his shot attempts in the last five games (6.8 per game) are also significantly down (7.8 per game against Denver, 9.5 per game against the Lakers).
Those are tell-tale signs of an offense that isn’t moving the ball, as are the Suns’ lower assist numbers (23.4 per game) and poor 3-point shooting (30.9 percent, down from 38.4 percent in their first 10 playoff games). Essentially, Phoenix needs to get back to doing what made its offense so potent in the first place by actually running plays again instead of hunting tough shots.
1. Push the pace
In the second round, the Suns routinely targets and deftly punished mismatches. And by mismatches, we mean Michael Porter Jr., who was at a disadvantage no matter who the Nuggets tried to hide him on. Chris Paul was sensational in that series, constantly gearing the offense toward getting MPJ switched on the wrong player and bullying him for it. CP3 averaged 25.5 points, 10.3 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game in that sweep, shooting a blistering 61.8 percent from the field and 58.3 percent from long range.
After dealing with that first-round shoulder stinger, it felt like the Point God was finally back.
And so, in typical Suns and Chris Paul fashion, more adversity just had to wreck the party. Paul tested positive for COVID-19, despite being vaccinated, and was forced to stay away from all basketball activities for more than a week. He missed the first two games of the series, and since his return, Phoenix is 1-2.
It’s unfair to pin all of the Suns’ struggles on his 19-of-60 shooting, but there’s no question that Paul has been bad in the three games he’s played. His team-worst on-court Net Rating of minus-12.4 is impossible to ignore, and Phoenix looked like a different, much faster team with Cameron Payne at the helm.
Watching CP3 slowly back his way down to half-court with 17 or 18 seconds left on the shot clock has become an anxiety-inducing practice, especially since the Suns aren’t getting into their offense until there’s about 13-14 seconds left by that point. This team needs to pick up the tempo, as their offensive rating has plummeted from 120.4 in the first two games to 97.9 over the last three with Paul back.
Some of this may just come down to Chris Paul hitting the mid-range shots he was burying at will in the last series, but if Payne is fully healthy after a minor ankle injury in Game 3, his minutes need to increase so Phoenix can push the tempo. The Clippers will be playing their 20th game in the last 40 days on Wednesday, so not pushing the ball and forcing fatigue on their part would be a severe blunder.
Even if the Clippers continue to be iron men, getting the ball out and pushing the tempo at every available opportunity will stop allowing LA to set their half-court defense, put some pressure on the rim with a more willing driver like Payne and maybe even get the Suns some points in transition again.
Suffice it to say that the Portland Trail Blazers’ introductory press conference for Chauncey Billups was an unmitigated disaster.
The Suns dropped the ball in Game 5, but give the Clippers credit: They simply won’t go away.