The Clippers made the game tight at the end, but Phoenix had one of their best shooting nights of the season and late-game heroics from Devin Booker helped the Suns beat the Clippers 117-115 in each team’s third bubble game.
While the Suns entered the game in 13th place in the Western Conference at 28-39, informed observers know that Phoenix is certainly capable of winning any given game–as evidenced by wins against the Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks before the season was suspended in March. I noted in yesterday’s game preview that the Suns have a formula for their big wins:
Despite being far down in the standings, the Suns won’t be helpless against LA–they beat the Clippers 130-122 during the regular season in an October game that feels like a lifetime ago. The Clippers were without Paul George in that one, but the Suns were without Ayton and Rubio, and the formula doesn’t feel impossible to repeat: a 30-point night for Booker with the team making 17 threes at 39.5% (well above their averages of 11.2 and 35.3%, but certainly a repeatable performance).
It was a similar formula that gave the Suns their other signature win, this one in March over the Milwaukee Bucks: 36 points for Booker, and 19 made threes for the team at 44.2%. When the 28-39 Suns make better than one-third of their threes, they are 21-21. When they make one-third or fewer, they’re 7-18. While the Suns certainly miss Kelly Oubre, the extra minutes for sharpshooter Cam Johnson help the team’s floor spacing.
It isn’t exactly revolutionary analysis: teams that make more shots win more often. But defending the three-point line is crucial for the Clippers as they face the Phoenix Suns.
The Suns didn’t just follow that formula tonight against the Clippers–they perfected it. Devin Booker finished with an efficient 35 points, and the Suns shot a stellar 53% from three, making 17 of their 32 attempts. That’s good for their third-best 3PT% of the season, and tied for their fourth-most makes in a night… with their other 17-make outing coming in their October, the first time Booker and the Suns beat the Clippers.
Interestingly, the Suns’ 17 made threes all came in the first three quarters–they were 0-6 in the final frame from beyond the arc as the Clippers climbed back into the game. The downpour being as condensed as it was made building momentum incredibly difficult for the Clippers, as each time they strung a few good possessions together, the Suns would seemingly always hit backbreaking threes to rebuild their lead.
LA weren’t playing their best for much of tonight’s game, but there were frequent stretches where they were clearly exerting effort to get easy looks in the paint offensively and fight their way back into the game. Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Marcus Morris each had impressive spurts where they penetrated the Suns’ defense and created good looks or free throw opportunities, but the barrage of Phoenix threes kept them at arm’s length until the closing minutes of the game.
Finally, after a Clippers timeout with 3:19 to play, LA began to gain ground. Kawhi Leonard scored at the rim on consecutive possessions (the latter an offensive rebound put-back), and a Zubac put-back with 1:56 to play tied the game. That two of the Clippers’ three buckets in this spurt came from fighting on the offensive class is perhaps evidence of how nothing came easy tonight.
The teams traded buckets down the stretch, with Leonard showing a couple of tricks from his Finals MVP repertoire (including a friendly whistle that earned him free throws). The Clippers found themselves tied, on defense, with 32 seconds remaining–all but guaranteed another chance on offense. As the Suns looked for a Booker/Ayton pick-and-roll, the Clippers twice brought Ivica Zubac on hard hedges to trap Devin Booker, finally forcing the ball out of the young star’s hands and instead to Ricky Rubio, who missed a heavily contested floater over the outstretched arms of Kawhi Leonard.
Ivica Zubac collected the crucial defensive rebound with about 12 seconds left, but instead of using the Clippers’ remaining timeout to advance the ball and draw up a play to win the game, attempted an outlet pass to Paul George. Long-armed defensive forward Mikal Bridges deflected the pass, and Booker ended up with the ball. He drove left against Paul George, stopped 18 feet from the basket, pivoted away from Kawhi Leonard’s double team, and hit an epic fadeaway buzzer-beater over the tight contest from George.
Between the one of their best shooting nights of the season, Mikal Bridges’ timely defensive awareness, and heroics by Devin Booker, the Phoenix Suns beat the Clippers for the second time this season, 117-115.
- Beverley Injured: The Clippers continue to be without their full-strength starting point guard, who faced a minutes restriction in each of their first two bubble games and exited early tonight with left calf soreness, playing just 8 minutes. Doc Rivers said after the game: “I don’t think it’s bad, but we’re going to be very cautious, I can tell you that.” The top priority for Beverley is health in the playoffs, even if it hurts the Clippers in seeding play.
- Lou Williams Returns: Lou made his bubble debut today, finishing with 7 points, 6 assists, and 6 rebounds in 21 minutes. He also had 3 turnovers and missed both his three-point attempts, looking not totally sharp. It was definitely good that he got some run in today, as his presence in coming games will allow the Clippers to exercise caution with Beverley.
- Center Controversy: JaMychal Green’s spacing has been the Clippers’ best center option so far in the bubble, and he had another strong game tonight, with 10 points and 4 rebounds in 21 minutes. Ivica Zubac, on the other hand, had one of his best games of the season, with 18 points and 12 rebounds on 7-9 shooting. Zu also got the opportunity to close the game against Ayton, a rare chance to see him in crunch-time minutes. He played well, but that poor decision in the closing seconds will hang over an otherwise stellar night like a storm cloud. Joakim Noah was not involved in the Clippers’ rotation.
- Morris’ Revenge: Marcus Morris may have had his best game as a Clipper, finishing with 16 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocks in 36 minutes. He was particularly impressive and patient as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations, using his body to get good positioning and finish short floaters–plus a really nice lob to Zubac on a possession where his drive was overplayed. Morris famously has bad blood with the Suns, so hopefully the extra motivation helped him build momentum that can carry over into future games.
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