While it wasn’t an overwhelming feeling, you couldn’t help but have some slight deja vu after Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
The Phoenix Suns flat-out looked like the better team against the Los Angeles Clippers. That was also the case against the Denver Nuggets in the previous round and that led to a sweep.
Now, that will very likely not be the case this time around. The Clippers were playing with a level of toughness and confidence that is going to make this a far more competitive series.
But the Suns, at least offensively, thrived by playing the way they want to play. The stylistic matchup allows for Phoenix to do that, which is a huge problem for Los Angeles.
Sunday was one of those games you kept looking at the box score expecting to see the Suns’ three-point percentage lower than it actually was, at 40.6% (13-for-32).
That’s because they missed a lot of quality looks.
Two consistent themes in all those shots are either the Suns getting dribble penetration or the Clippers’ failure to scramble defensively, something we went over in the series preview that was glaring in Game 1.
With Los Angeles either going small or using Ivica Zubac and DeMarcus Cousins at center, it has no rim protection. That’s why the Clippers defend that way, which is represented by the Suns shooting 18-of-20 (90.0%) at the rim when they did happen to get shots there.
The Suns kept going back to their actions featuring a player each on the elbows, one of them being Deandre Ayton or Dario Saric so the basket was free.
Some of these sets forced the Clippers to recover to the basket, opening up Ayton trailing, or it was more instantaneous with a quick bucket.
Those elbow plays and the Suns’ general ball movement have been two things they’ve been great at all year, with an emphasis on all year.
What the Clippers are lacking in feeds right into what is, at this point, fundamental for the Suns.
Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Cam Johnson and Torrey Craig made great 0.5 reads all game.
Bonus points if you’ve been paying attention and noticed that five of those six buckets were at the rim, all in ways and from sources you wouldn’t quite expect.
Even something like that second clip where Crowder makes the extra pass to Johnson is the type of simple stuff where Crowder passes while Johnson also does the work to reposition himself to the corner. That’s high-level execution.
Here’s what Johnson had to say Monday when it comes to being so comfortable with that now after his second season playing for Monty Williams.
“It’s just a growth over time thing,” he said. “He’s been preaching that since Day 1 so it’s been a lot of time to understand it. A lot of the time, it’s just about picking up things as you go along. Just how the 0.5 kind of fits into our personnel group on the court with you and how it all works out.”
Sure, the Clippers could clean a bit of this up, but a lot of it comes down to the Suns purely being just too good at what they do, something that will be a problem for Los Angeles all series.
The other side of the ball is where the Clippers stand a better chance of evening things up.
Williams had some pros and cons on his team’s defensive performance after seeing it back on film.
“We were solid in some areas, and in some (other) areas not so much. We gave up a few corner 3s that we want to try and stay away from. But I thought the physicality was decent,” he said Monday. “Jae, Mikal, Cam, Torrey and Book, those are all like-sized guys, so any time we can use that to switch and keep the ball in front and you don’t have to get into rotations … We still see areas where we can improve.
“We really have to close out to their feet, especially their shooters, and they have a lot of them. We talked about that today. There was a lot of will and just energy out there on the floor, even when something broke down schematically, I thought the will of our players, especially to pursue rebounds, was really good.”
Right after or alongside Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the scouting report comes the Clippers’ three-point shooting. They were second in the NBA this season in the percentage of their shots from the corners, a percentage of 11.3% they’ve bumped to a playoff-best 13.2%, per Cleaning the Glass.
Los Angeles shot a bonkers 46.5% on those looks in the regular season, tops in the league.
It is the Clippers’ bread and butter. They created 14 attempts on corner 3s in Game 1, the most the Suns have allowed in the playoffs.
Here’s a guess at the ones Williams didn’t like. Three of them are leaving the strong-side corner and another is abandoning George to stop Patrick Beverley at the rim.
That one George miss was E’Twaun Moore guarding him, and that speaks to how switching can complicate things, as Moore is a smart player who just got caught ball watching.
Three more of them were guarded by Ayton, which is particularly interesting since the Suns’ switching scheme prioritized him being in the corner. Williams said it’s about keeping Ayton closer to the basket, where he can help with rim protection and rebounding the most.
In the second clip, you see Booker directing Ayton there. The last example was probably by design to attack Ayton, with George getting the ball on that side and the action placing Nic Batum in the corner.
Per NBA.com’s tracking data, Ayton defended 13 shots in Game 1, his second-lowest number of the postseason. For reference, his average number in the regular season was 15.0 and is 17.4 in the playoffs.
If there’s anyone the Clippers want to go at on the perimeter, it’s Ayton.
Williams was asked about the Suns’ ability to keep Ayton mostly out of those scenarios like defending off-the-bounce threats.
“We’re doing the best we can to try to keep him out of rotations,” he said. “Sometimes it doesn’t always work that way … For the most part, we’re just trying our best to keep him at the rim because they’re so good in their isolations and playing off the bounce.”
Going back to the last video clips, Williams also mentioned in that answer that the Batum 3 was the type of situation they’d like to avoid if possible.
Clippers head coach Ty Lue will find a way to make that more unavoidable in Game 2.