Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams had a chuckle or two during the last answer of his media availability Thursday after a 113-103 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers when it came to if his team got tired late.
“I’m a no excuses, no explanation guy. That’s just who I am, but I’m not crazy. To play a game like that, play in overtime like we did last night and then have to come here and play the Clippers like that — it’s not the best scenario for any team,” he said.
The Suns’ most intense game of the season thus far, an overtime victory over the Utah Jazz Wednesday, was followed by an immediate flight to L.A. to take on a Clippers team that was ready for another game of that level.
Both teams established a physical style from the jump, with two flagrant fouls and two ejections coming over the course of the game.
Los Angeles (35-18) was sharp all night, and the NBA’s best three-point shooting team was as advertised. The Clippers shot 18-of-37 (48.6%) from three-point range.
“It makes for a tough night,” Williams said of giving the Clippers that many looks, noting he would have liked to see the Suns chase Los Angeles off the line a bit more.
That expert marksmanship did not allow the Suns to create much separation in a first half where they were the better team, shooting a season-high 65% but only being up two.
Eventually, that’s where the tired legs Williams was asked about started to creep in. Through that, they couldn’t hit shots. Phoenix didn’t convert on a three-pointer during a stretch over 26 in-game minutes from the mid-second quarter until the late fourth.
Even though Phoenix hung around and kept battling, the deficit grew to 10 with 8:46 to go, and that’s where the fatigue really started to show. A brief glimmer of hope was sprinkled in when Patrick Beverley got ejected for a four-point swing that got Phoenix within four at the 6:47 mark, but the Clippers quickly answered with a 10-0 run to ice it.
Eight of those points were from Paul George, who was sensational. He scored 33 points and was 7-for-9 from deep, hitting a variety of, “Well, what can you do?” shots. Kawhi Leonard chipped in 27 points of his own. That team will be quite the tough out in the postseason if it gets 60-plus from those two and defends like they did Thursday.
The Suns embraced the physicality of the game with 30 trips to the free-throw line, including a 12-for-14 outing for Devin Booker.
But Phoenix had only 20 assists and shot 6-for-24 from three-point range.
The Suns entered Thursday averaging 27.1 assists per game, second-most in the NBA, and 13.0 three-point field goals, 13th leaguewide.
Because of Williams’ core 0.5 offensive principles of quick ball movement, along with three players who absorb a lot of a defense’s gravity, they generate a lot of assists and 3s along the way rather naturally.
That did not happen on Thursday against a really great defensive effort from Los Angeles.
“There were times where we held the ball instead of attacking,” Williams said. “When we play with pace tonight, even off misses or turnovers, and we got out and ran, that was the style of basketball that we’re used to seeing.”
The Clippers threw blitzes and nearly a half-dozen marks on Booker through their switch-heavy system that has veteran wings capable of the task, and the Suns’ playmaking and off-ball movement weren’t quite where it needed to be off those situations.
“I think they switched a lot of actions, forced us to be a little bit stagnant with that,” Booker said. “I think if we cut a little bit harder and trust the offense and move a little bit quicker with our cuts, our screens — teams are switching everything (so) you have to punish them for that. We have some things to work on.”
Booker had the juice Thursday night, that pep in his step slicing through defenses, but could only get himself a 6-of-13 shooting night and had to rely on the foul line to get up to 24 points. It’s a credit to the Clippers defense for limiting him on a night where it looked like he could have easily gone for 40-plus.
The Suns (36-15) loss ended a seven-game winning streak and gave the Clippers the tiebreaker in the standings. Among the top-8 in the West, Phoenix holds a tiebreaker over the Jazz, Lakers, Blazers, Mavericks and Grizzlies. They lost out on it against the Nuggets and Clippers.
Deandre Ayton was back on it as an interior presence, shooting 9-of-11 from the field with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Ayton had four offensive rebounds, and that has usually been the threshold for him having a good night.
Mikal Bridges bounced back from a scoreless outing on Wednesday to 20 points in L.A., as he was the only Suns perimeter player consistently benefitting from what Booker talked about punishing.
Dario Saric was 0-for-4 in 13 minutes, getting back in a funk after it looked like he had recovered from a rough two-week stretch.
The loss can be written off as one of the scheduling variety, but it’s also going to benefit the Suns a whole more than getting two nights of rest before blowing out a bad team.
“I really feel like our guys have to go through that,” Williams said. “When you get to the playoffs, those are the kinds of games, those are the kinds of emotions that you have to learn how to deal with. So it’s a good experience for us, but for sure we were tired, especially in the second half.”
Chris Paul said he was proud of the team and was seen laughing with Booker while joking about something as the final horn sounded. He has to be satisfied with the younger guys like Booker, Ayton, Bridges and Cam Johnson not only playing well in a high-level environment in the last two games but responding to it. And, even in some cases, thriving in it.
“It’s fun. This is why you play — for the energy of these games,” Paul said. “There’s nothing like it.
“We gotta expect that for the rest of the season (that) this is what we’re gonna get from teams. We still haven’t proven anything to anybody yet and I think we got a team where we try to prove things to ourselves. We expect a lot from ourselves and it’s a great team to be on and a great group of guys to be around.”