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WCF Primer: Wing effectiveness will be critical for the Suns against five-out Clippers

The Phoenix Suns will need their wings to defend the perimeter to win their series against the Los Angeles Clippers.

New Orleans Pelicans v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns are making their tenth appearance in the Western Conference Finals on Sunday afternoon. Their opponent, the Los Angeles Clippers, are making their first. From a franchise perspective, that is an impelling storyline. To the teams walking onto the hardwood, it doesn’t matter. No members of the Suns were part of the previous nine teams and I’m not sure they care that the Suns are 2-7 in the WCF.

All that matters is the team across the court from you.

Looking at the challenges the Los Angeles Clippers will pose for the Phoenix Suns, you have to give James Jones some credit. When the trade deadline approached, many — myself included — were beating the drum to acquire a big and add depth to our frontcourt.

James Jones, however, stuck to a philosophy he seems to understand from his playing days: you can never have too many wings. A week prior to the trade deadline, Jones traded some cold, hard cash to the Milwaukee Bucks for Torrey Craig. The 6’7” wing had 33 games of playoff experience with the Denver Nuggets, a 109 defensive rating, and a desire to play for the Phoenix Suns.

“I actually wanted to come here,” Craig said after hearing he was traded to the Suns. “But some things happened, pretty crazy and pretty wild and unpredictable. Some things kind of fell through and I ended up going to Milwaukee.”

Still, the thought of not adding depth behind Deandre Ayton was concerning. If the Suns were to play teams with a platoon of frontcourt size in the postseason, the team would be screwed. Shows how much we know right? The Suns banished the Los Angeles Lakers and took out the MVP-led Denver Nuggets. The Clippers took out the Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Golbert, in 6 games.

What you are left with are two teams full of shooters and wings. It looks like James Jones made the right move after all.

The need for quality wing play is paramount to the Phoenix Suns success in the Western Conference Finals. The Clippers are a team that likes to drive a kick, finding their shooters open (especially in the corner-three area). The ability to close out on those shooters could determine the series.

Although the Clippers were 14th in the league this year in 3PA (34.7 per-game), they led the NBA in 3PT%, making a daunting 41.1% of those attempts. In the Western Conference Semifinals versus the Utah Jazz, that number jumped to 43.3%. They’ve been the best team in the postseason at shooting wide open three-pointers as 22.5% of their attempts have been considered wide open (defender more than 6-feet away from the shooter).

In the absence of Kawhi Leonard, Terrance Mann dropped a career high of 39 points in the clinching game last night against the Jazz. How did he do it? By being wide open and knocking down his three’s. He shot 15-of-21 from the field and 7-of-10 from beyond the arc. Everyone of those three-point attempts, per advanced stats, was classified as wide open.

On the play above you can see that Mann camped out in the corner and, due to the lack of wing defenders, the Jazz had to put Golbert on him. Golbert makes his living in the paint, so as Reggie Jackson drives, he collapses. Mann is left wide open and knocks down the three. It was this offensive approach the entire game.

The Clippers won by 12.

This isn’t a “let’s game plan to stop Terrance Mann” observation. This is insight to how the Clippers offense, when it is right, works. You can insert a plethora of different players into Mann’s position on the floor and they have the capacity to hurt you. They have 8 players who shoot 39% or better from beyond the arc.

  • Patrick Beverly: 39.7 3PT%
  • Kawhi Leonard: 39.8 3PT%
  • Nicolas Batum: 40.4 3PT%
  • Paul George: 41.1 3PT%
  • Rajon Rondo: 43.2 3PT%
  • Reggie Jackson: 43.3 3PT%
  • Luke Kennard: 44.6 3PT%
  • Marcus Morris: 47.3 3PT%

That’s right Suns fans. Expect to see our old buddy Marcus Morris knocking down some big shots in this series, much to our annoyance. Conversely, the Suns have just three players — CP3, Langston Galloway, and Cameron Payne — who shoot over 39% from deep.

The interior for the Clippers is not overwhelming. Ivica Zubac, the 7’0” center from Bosnia and Herzegovina, is containable and not very athletic. Expect the Clips to run more small-ball lineups at the Suns in an attempt to create those perimeter mismatches.

One advantage the Suns have? Deandre Ayton is not Rudy Golbert. Due to his lateral quickness, length, and athleticism, DA plays almost like a 6’11” wing rather than a paint-centric traditional center. He can deter shots at the rim but also can defend the perimeter when needed, especially if Nicolas Batum is the five. There is no world where Batum drives past Ayton to get to the rim and is successful. At least no world I want to live in.

This is where the Torrey Craig addition becomes so valuable. Through the first 10 games of the postseason, Craig leads the team with a 27.5 DFG% (defensive field goal). Granted, he has averaged 18.8 minutes per-game, but his defensive presence has flustered the opposition. He has a 99.6 defensive rating.

Think back to the matchups earlier in the season against the Clippers. The Suns were 1-2 against Los Angeles in those games. The first two games saw the Clippers shoot 53% from deep. Of the 66 three-pointers attempted in those two games by the Clippers, 25 were considered wide open and they shot 68%.

Paul George shot 14-of-19 (73.7%) from deep in those two victories. Unconscious. And most likely unsustainable.

Yes, I know that you can’t read too much into regular season matchups. Teams have adjusted to weaknesses come playoff time and typically play differently. That’s how you get into the conference finals. Still, there were some interesting adjustments for the April 28 matchup against the Clips.

In their third matchup of the season,, Los Angeles was without All-NBA First Teamer Kawhi Leonard. Their starting five was Reggie Jackson, Terrance Mann, Marcus Morris, Paul George, and Ivica Zubac. Sub Batum for Zubac and you have the same lineup they’ve marched out there in their last two playoff games.

The Suns were without Jae Crowder and had to start Torrey Craig. The result was much different. Of the 31 hoisted three-pointers in the game, 11 were considered wide open, yet the Clippers only shot 36.4% on those attempts. Paul George was a pedestrian 12-of-22 from the field and 3-of-9 from deep.

The Clippers had to work harder to get those open shots due to the switchability of the Suns defense. Remember that wide open three-pointer from Terrance Mann earlier? The one where no one on the Jazz defense accounts from him? It was a different story against the Suns.

Chris Paul didn’t put up much of a shot contest, but notice the defensive set for Phoenix. They have a body on every guy. This strategy of accounting for the deadly Clippers will have to increase if Phoenix wants to freeze them out from deep.

The need for Mikal Bridges to have a big series is critical. The Clippers will test his ability to close out, on the perimeter. When guarding Paul George this season, which occurred for a total of 13:44 game time minutes, he held the All-NBA forward to 5-of-12 shooting (3-of-4 from deep, but again, for two games no one stopped him). This trend needs to continue in the Western Conference Finals.

The cloud of mystery remains around the availability of Chris Paul. We are not sure when he will see the court again following entering COVID-19 protocols.

Offensively the Suns will have to navigate sets and options on how to generate points in his absence. Defensively, the focus will be on the Suns’ wings. Mikal Bridges. Jae Crowder. Cameron Johnson. Torrey Craig. It is their work on the defensive side of the ball, closing out on shooters and forcing them into tough shots, that will allow the Suns to gain an edge on the Clippers.

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