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HomeUncategorizedPhoenix Suns condemned by sluggish start in defeat to Clippers

Phoenix Suns condemned by sluggish start in defeat to Clippers

In the loss to the surging Los Angeles Clippers, the Phoenix Suns’ recent progress made Wednesday’s showdown an intriguing test, but one for which they were not prepared, leading to a 131-122 defeat.

The Clippers (21-12) secured their 11th victory in the last 13 games, their remarkable form proving to be the significant factor in the night’s outcome. Their 35-20 lead in the first quarter, sustained through three quarters, was mainly due to their exceptional shooting, hitting 60% from the field with 15 successful 3-pointers.

The game got a bit eccentric at one point. A 40-point Suns third quarter showed signs of vitality, only to be nearly matched by the Clippers’ 37 points. L.A. managed to stay 16 points ahead going into the fourth quarter, even though Phoenix got as close as a 15-point difference in the third quarter.

For the second consecutive game, Bol Bol injected energy into the game as a big man. His involvement in an Eric Gordon 3-pointer, hitting a 3-pointer himself, and putting back his own offensive rebound brought the Suns within 13 points with 7:43 remaining. Each positive play by Bol sparked a major crowd reaction, indicating that the Clippers still had work to do.

With 4:19 to go and the Suns trailing by eight, Bol remained on the court as the flow of the game suggested the focus should be on generating enough defensive stops. The game was in a peculiar state for L.A., a combination of “we thought this was over,” “the crowd is firing them up,” and “are they chanting ‘BOL BOL!’?” So it was uncertain what might transpire.

However, the result was similar to earlier occurrences, with the Clippers scoring a crucial 3-pointer and forcing a Suns turnover before Kawhi Leonard’s free throws stretched the Clippers’ lead to 13 points. Despite a comeback attempt by Phoenix, powerful plays from Leonard and a James Harden step-back 3-pointer dealt a blow to the Suns’ hopes.

“I’m more concerned with how we started the game defensively,” Suns head coach Frank Vogel stated. “I don’t think we had the necessary mindset to defend against an elite offense, a team with a lot of firepower. … They didn’t feel our defensive presence in the first half.”

“We need to initiate games with a greater sense of urgency and be prepared for the challenge,” Suns guard Devin Booker emphasized. “We were facing an uphill battle throughout. We showed some glimpses in the second half of what it looks like when we elevate our energy and intensity.”

Despite Kevin Durant’s absence (right hamstring soreness), the Suns stuck with the same starting lineup from Monday’s win, with Chimezie Metu taking his place. Given the matchup, this decision reflected a strong vote of confidence from the coaching staff.

Harden is a robust, sizable guard, and the pairing of Paul George and Leonard are formidable perimeter players for whom a single ideal defender may not be enough. Durant would likely have been assigned to guard Leonard given his physical attributes, but there were still uncertainties elsewhere.

Even with an inclination to avoid man-to-man defense through a switch-heavy scheme and tactical moves like using a zone, Los Angeles still manages to find isolations, being the team with the highest isolation frequency in the NBA, according to NBA Stats. While Metu has been defensively reliable for the Suns, he had not been assigned much on-ball responsibility, and facing a formidable player like Leonard on Wednesday was a significant challenge. However, Metu only played 15 minutes, and Keita Bates-Diop did his best to match up against Leonard or George in 21 minutes.

Then, there is the Grayson Allen factor, who drew special attention from Leonard in the second half.

Until Beal gets more games under his belt, Allen has been among Phoenix’s top three performers this year. The fifth starting position at the start of the season was expected to rotate based on matchups, but Allen’s importance to Phoenix’s offensive performance and overall contributions has established him as an indispensable member of the team. However, elite size or speed can expose weaknesses in Allen’s on-ball defense, raising questions about his role and the potential choices Coach Vogel might have to make in April, especially in a playoff scenario. This vulnerability became apparent as both Harden and Russell Westbrook targeted him.

Phoenix initially played with minimal defensive switches in the game, and thanks to Bradley Beal’s vigilant presence, they were able to restrict space for Terance Mann (a 20.3% 3-point shooter this year) just like Jusuf Nurkic. Additionally, they swiftly doubled on Leonard, which seemed appropriate.

However, the Clippers adeptly worked around it, with Mann scoring 12 points in the first quarter and George adding 17. The lapses were evident in containing George, who found too much freedom.

Nonetheless, this was not the primary concern; the issue was that the Suns allowed a high-energy start to affect them, resulting in the loss of momentum and allowing L.A. to seize a 15-point lead, from which Phoenix never recovered.

L.A. employed its usual aggressively strategic approach by pressuring Booker in ball screens, applying the same tactic to Beal when he was not on the court with Booker.

The Clippers adeptly executed this strategy, while for the Suns, it was a mixed bag at best. Despite six turnovers, Booker managed to handle it well and did not have many opportunities in the first half. However, there was no room for error with those turnovers, and the openings he found in the third quarter to score 19 of his 35 points only emerged once L.A. had gained the upper hand. His performance, especially in the second half, demonstrated his best form in the recent string of games, shooting 11-of-15.

Phoenix scored 101 points in the final three quarters and made 12 triples in the second half to reach that total. Gordon contributed 16 points off the bench, while Bol chipped in with 14. Beal put in a solid performance but, similar to Booker on Monday, struggled to convert shots. He finished with 21 points, five rebounds, four assists, two steals, and a block in 41 minutes, shooting 7-of-20 from the field.

Leonard’s scoring spree after a scoreless first quarter ended with 30 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals, and two blocks. George also had a stellar game, scoring 33 points, underscoring the fact that the Suns’ defensive rotations, while adequate, were not at the required level to contain a talented team like the Clippers when they are in top form. Harden, renowned for his excellent passing ability and court vision, dissected and exploited the Suns’ defense to score 22 points and provide 11 assists.

It is nearly impossible for any defense to contain this formidable trio, both in terms of personnel and execution, which puts the Suns at a significant disadvantage. Seeing both George and Leonard in action once again served as a reminder of their incredible talent. George delivered an outstanding performance in the 2021 Western Conference Finals against Phoenix, while Leonard was exceptional in last year’s first-round matchup against the Suns before sustaining an injury. If they can stay healthy, they are in a position to reach those heights once more, possibly even together.

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