The LA Clippers jumped out to an early 1-0 series lead over the Phoenix Suns in game 1 Sunday evening, opening their first-round series against their divisional foe with a 115-110. Read on for a full Clippers vs Suns game 1 recap:
The noteworthy developments began in the hours before tip-off today, with three significant updates relating to this series. The first, of course, was the bad news that Paul George is unlikely to return at any point in this series. On the Suns side, we got two surprises: backup point guard Cameron Payne was downgraded to out after suffering a back injury late in the regular season, and veteran forward Torrey Craig took over in the starting lineup for Josh Okogie, who started the final 25 games of the regular season for the Suns. Craig joined the Suns’ core 4 of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and Deandre Ayton in the starting lineup, opposite the expected Clippers: Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, Kawhi Leonard, Nico Batum, and Ivica Zubac.
LA jumped out to an early lead as the Suns struggled offensively, putting up just 18 points in the opening frame. The Clippers’ defense was dynamic: they began with Kawhi Leonard on Deandre Ayton to facilitate easy switches, only to revert to playing Ivica Zubac in drop coverage as soon as Suns head coach Monty Williams took a timeout to adjust. The matchups among Westbrook, Batum, and Gordon guarding Paul, Booker, and Durant were fluid and changing possession-by-possession early, preventing Phoenix from getting into a comfortably rhythm. Eric Gordon got off to a hot start with 12 first quarter points on 5-6 shooting, including a pair of threes, while Kevin Durant started cold, with 0 points on 0-4 shooting in the opening frame. As both teams transitioned to their bench, the Clippers continued to pull ahead, outscoring the Suns by 9 points in the final 3:50 of the quarter (when the first subs were made) to build a 12-point lead.
Things started well for the Clippers in the second quarter, as they built their lead to a game-high 16 at 35-19. It took Phoenix 17 minutes to score their first 27 points, and just 7 minutes to score their next 27, as they pulled within 5 of the Clippers at halftime, 59-54. Kevin Durant had a stellar quarter, scoring 17 points on 4-6 shooting, and the Clippers saw 7 Durant points in the final 73 seconds of the half take away their 12-point lead and shift the tides of the game heading into the break.
The Clippers held serve to begin the third, keeping a precarious two-possession lead alive for several minutes, before Phoenix finally tied the game at 68, then took the lead, and then expanded it, peaking with a 9-point, 77-68 lead just as the teams began making substitutions. Mirroring the Suns’ second-quarter close, the Clippers finished the third on a 9-3 run against Phoenix’s bench, bringing the game to an 81-81 tie with 12 minutes to play.
Despite playing the whole third quarter, Kawhi Leonard stayed in the game to start the fourth, scoring 5 quick points in the opening minute of the frame. He would catch a few moments of rest, as Russell Westbrook controversially returned to the game despite shooting just 3-19 from the field overall (more on him in a second). Fortunately for the Clippers, Norman Powell gave the team a lift as Kawhi sat, scoring 4 points in the 2 minute that Leonard sat to keep pace with the Suns. Durant and Leonard traded baskets just before the 6-minute mark, leaving the Clippers with a narrow one-point advantage. Then, both teams fell into a bit of a rut, going just 3-3 over nearly 4 minutes of play until the two former NBA Finals MVPs took over: Leonard hit a three. Durant made a pull-up jumper. Leonard hit another three. Durant drew a double and assisted a mid-range shot from Ayton. Leonard kicked the ball out for a three by Eric Gordon.
Finally, the dust settled without much movement. The Clippers had the ball, up 1, with 68 seconds to play, and proceeded to accidentally kill clock with a series of misses and offensive rebounds. The Clippers possessed the ball for 51 straight seconds, gathering three offensive rebounds (one by Russell Westbrook, the other two credited as “team” rebounds–meaning the loose ball went out of bounds off of Phoenix due to LAC’s activity), before Devin Booker fouled Westbrook on the Clippers’ fourth try. Westbrook made both to push the lead to three, and then as Devin Booker drove on the other end to extend the game, Westbrook masterfully blocked the shot, controlled the loose ball as he fell out of bounds, and saved it off of Booker’s leg. A few formalities later, the Clippers emerged victorious in front of a sellout crowd in Phoenix where they were 8-point underdogs.
- Russ: The most polarizing player in the NBA managed to have one of the most polarizing single-game performances in NBA history. He was truly so bad on offense–not just missing shots en route to a historically bad 3-19 shooting night, but taking bad shots and continuing to take them despite the constant stream of misses. Six 3PA from a career 30.5% shooter, none of which he particularly needed to take, a number of chaotic drives, bricked 0-pass early-clock pull-up jumpers… it was ugly. Offense Russ was the worst player on the floor tonight for either team. But defense Russ? You’ll go into battle with the Russ the Clippers got on the defensive end of the floor tonight anytime. He worked his ass off, covered all 5 Suns starters in different looks, made plays on- and off-ball, and iced the game not only with his game-securing block (on a minor technicality, it wasn’t a “game-winning” or “game-saving” block since it was blocking a 2-point attempt with the Clippers up 3 and 10 seconds left) but several other key pokeaways in the waning moments.
- Monty Williams: I gotta tell you, I spend a bit of time preparing for Clippers playoff series, and Monty’s game 1 approach left me confused. He both played his main guys massive minutes (Durant 45, Booker 43, Paul 39) and found a way to get 11 guys into the game, with 5 of them playing fewer than 8 minutes. Josh Okogie had started the Suns’ last 25 games and averaged 27 minutes per game since the All-Star Break, but played just 6:37 tonight. Phoenix’s second-most-used bench player behind sixth man Landry Shamet, Jock Landale, played just 7:33, all of which came in the second half after not appearing in the first. Only two Suns lineups (their starters, and their starters with Shamet in place of Craig) played more than 3 minutes, preventing any of their rotated looks from getting into a rhythm over a full shift. And they played their core 4 together for 28 minutes of the game, leaving minimal opportunity for staggering. The Suns were +4 in 44:31 with Durant on the floor in a game that they lost by 5. If Monty Williams can’t figure out a way to do better than -9 in 3:29 without Durant, the Suns are in trouble.
- Free Throws: We talked a lot heading into this series about how the Suns are a particularly bad team at both getting to the free throw line and keeping their opponents off of it. That, coupled with Phoenix’s shallow roster construction meaning they would be left exposed if their starters were in foul trouble, meant my eye was on the foul column of the box score all night. In a game that was mutually physical and sloppy, the Suns got the better end of the whistle, taking 33 free throws to the Clippers’ 29. Devin Booker in particular was allowed to maul whoever had the ball with little acknowledgement from the officials, including a play in the second quarter where his would-be third foul was mistakenly assigned to Deandre Ayton so that he could stay in the game. Ultimately, while fouls might have affected how some Suns played (Durant in particular seemed to instinctively avoid making aggressive defensive plays as he approached foul trouble), the only player who really reached foul trouble was Torrey Craig.
- Threes: It’s not secret that the three-point shot has introduced a new level of variance to NBA basketball. While the Suns and Clippers have very similar attempt and percentage numbers on the season, Phoenix has taken fewer threes in the games that Durant has played as they lean into a heavier diet of midrange shots. The Clippers were a below-average 10-31 from three tonight while the Suns made 6 of just 19 attempts. A team only took 19 or fewer threes in a game 20 times this season. I see a 10-31 night from distance for the Clippers and think that they need to prioritize creating more quality three-point attempts (they’re 16-8 this year when taking 37 or more threes). I can only imagine that the Suns are going to make getting more threes up a point of emphasis heading into game 2. Credit to both defenses for funneling shots to the desired players/spots tonight, but both offenses will have moments in this series where they break free.
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