It got dicey as the visitors lost almost all of a 30-point lead, but the Clippers were able to survive against the Phoenix Suns as Paul George led the way with 39 points on 15-24 shooting. George’s play was the catalyst in the Clippers’ original efforts to build their lead, as well as their survival down the stretch–despite Kawhi Leonard’s abysmal night, shooting just 4-21 from the field.
The Clippers’ starters, who entered tonight boasting a league-best +38 net rating, wasted no time in jumping out to an early lead against the Suns, earning an 18-9 lead midway through the first quarter. Early on, it was Paul George and Nicolas Batum who were the standouts, with George scoring 14 points in 9 first-quarter minutes and Batum hitting a pair of threes and adding three assists while drawing the defensive assignment against Suns star Devin Booker.
If the Clipper’s strong opening was perhaps predicted by each team’s lineup data, the way the game turned as second unit lineups bridged the first two periods was surely unpredictable. Playing in a four-guard lineup with a Reggie Jackson – Lou Williams – Luke Kennard trio that has been tumultuous (to put it kindly) defensively, George continued to rain fire on the Suns’ reserves. I feel a little bad for backup guards Jevon Carter and Langston Galloway, who had very little chance to impact the game before somehow finding their bench lineup a -19 in under 4 minutes of play as the Clippers began to flirt with a 30-point lead.
Surprisingly, the usually-prolific Lou Williams was a quiet participant in the onslaught as Luke Kennard put up a quick 13 first-half points and Reggie Jackson kept the offense flowing with 5 points, 5 assists, and 0 turnovers before halftime.
Good things can’t always last, though. The Suns, who entered the night in sole possession of first place in the Western Conference, took their first-half beating in a fashion that resembled the Clippers’ scrappy loss to Utah on Friday moreso than their 50-point crushing at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks a week ago. By halftime, a once 31-point lead was down to 20, and the Suns would continue to slowly chip away at the deficit until it was just 7 entering the 4th quarter (they’d get as close as 1 during the fourth, but never quite tie the game).
For the Clippers, some things started to unravel as the second half progressed. Serge Ibaka contributed just 0 points and 3 rebounds through three quarters as his minutes were limited by foul trouble. That resulted in the early insertion of Ivica Zubac in the third, priming the Clippers for a late-third lineup where a tired Zu was asked to anchor the aforementioned triumvirate of poor defensive guards. It went about as expected, with the Suns mounting 7-0 run in the final 2:00 of the third and continuing their offensive spurt in the fourth as Ibaka re-entered the game and struggled to stand in for Zubac’s stalwart defense anchoring the team’s porous second unit.
Fortunately for the Clippers, Serge’s shot began to fall after a rough 7 quarters in Utah and Phoenix, as he hit two huge threes in the early fourth to keep the surging Suns at bay. Those shots, plus timely contributions from George and Jackson, helped the Clippers trade baskets while they struggled defensively, buying time until Kawhi Leonard and Nicolas Batum could return and stabilize the defense. I didn’t even notice this live, but the return of the Clippers’ starters began a stretch where neither team scored for exactly three minutes, from 8:43 remaining to the 5:43 mark.
The 30-point swing made for a dramatic storyline, but ultimately this game got right to the point you’d expect a game between two good teams to get to–close in the fourth quarter, and even with some high emotions as Devin Booker shared choice words with Paul George. It appears as though everyone in the league is looking to get their shots in at PG after he had some bad performances in the playoffs a few months ago–fair enough. I’d throw up Booker’s playoff numbers for comparison but he has yet to appear in the post-season through the first five years of his career (a spell that will surely be broken this year with Chris Paul leading the Suns). George, of course, has only missed the playoffs once in his ten-year career, due to injury.
For the Clippers, winning in spite of Kawhi Leonard’s 0-6 shooting in the final frame is certainly enough to walk away feeling fortunate–even as fans were ripping their hair out as a red-hot Paul George watched Kawhi miss shot after shot down the stretch (don’t underrate Mikal Bridges’ stellar defense to deny George the ball whenever the offense would have flowed in his direction. The Clippers chose to counter when the Suns overplayed George instead of forcing the ball his way, and they did produce good shots because of it–Kawhi just couldn’t hit anything tonight). The last bits of tension were diffused as George drove in the closing seconds and found Nicolas Batum for a corner three that put the Clippers ahead by 6 with just 12 seconds to play.
Clippers vs Suns Game Notes
- The Battle Underneath: Deandre Ayton absolutely dominated both Serge Ibaka and Ivica Zubac tonight, putting up 24 points and 8 rebounds on 9-12 shooting. While he didn’t get a block, he was impactful in interior defense as well. The Suns do have a difficult choice at center, though–their offense’s best moments seemed to come when Dario Saric was spacing the floor to allow their guards more room to operate. The smaller Saric allowed the Clippers to do more damage around the rim and on the offensive glass. The larger Ayton got cooked on several switches as he tried to contain Paul George. I’m interested to see how the Suns close games throughout the year.
- 45: That’s how many minutes Devin Booker played tonight, coming back early in the second quarter after the Clippers’ 18-0 run and then playing the entire second half. It’s certainly an indication that he and the Suns wanted this game, and his constant presence as the Clippers cycled into their reserves was a big part of the reason Phoenix stayed in it. They only played 8 guys in the second half, perhaps contributing to both the comeback and some offensive stalling in the mid-fourth as fatigue set in.
- Three-Point Shooting: I noted before the game that both the Clippers and Suns had been on the lucky end of the three-point variance spectrum early on this season, with both teams likely making more shots than they would as the year went on and Phoenix in particular benefiting from opponents’ misses more than any team in the league did last year. A little bit of that can be skill and scheme, but a lot of it (for both teams!) so far has just been luck. Tonight, the Suns hit the regression wall hard, as the Clippers outshot them 17-29 (58.6%) to 10-33 (30.3%) from beyond the arc. Don’t worry, regression is coming for the Clippers soon enough.
- Winning in Different Ways: That said, I’m not buying into any of the hype I see on twitter about the Clippers only winning when they shoot well. I think it’s a little bit of the last decade of Clipper disasters causing some folks to need to be perpetually melting down about something so they can say “I told you so.” The truth is, you can guess the winners of most NBA games by checking the three-point shooting column in the box score. It was certainly the biggest differentiator between these two teams tonight, and there will be nights where the Clippers are outshot in similar fashion and lose. But the Clippers–like the Suns–are capable of winning games in a variety of ways, even when they aren’t on fire from deep (just like the Suns almost won tonight). There will be nights where threes don’t fall but Kawhi Leonard is lethal in the mid-range and lifts their offense to victory. There will be nights where threes don’t fall but the defense digs in and wins a game below 100 points. There will be nights where they lose. It’s a 72-game season, let’s try to accept that things will ebb and flow, and that that’s totally normal for every team, every year.
- TLTJTP: Dr. Shap and Robert Flom broke down the game on a new episode of The Lob, The Jam, The Podcast. Check it out!
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