The Phoenix Suns are one win away from the NBA Finals.
With their 84-80 slugfest of a victory against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals on Saturday, the Suns have an opportunity to win the conference title in front of their home fans tonight. The building will be packed. Emotions will be high. It’s these things and more that Phoenix coach Monty Williams has considered ahead of time.
“We just have to have a great deal of balance with our emotions and handle this the right way, not get too far ahead,” Williams said on Saturday. “Yes, we are one win away from where we want to go but we got to look at the film, prepare even better and step-by-step, pound the rock over the next couple of days so that we can be better when we play this team again. Because we know we’re going to see a desperate team.”
Saturday’s win marked the second-lowest field-goal percentage for the Suns this season (36.0 percent), trailing only their 101-97 victory over the Charlotte Hornets on March 28. Phoenix’s percentage in Game 3 was not much better, shooting just 35-of-90 (38.9 percent) in a 106-92 loss.
A big reason for the Suns’ collective struggles has been those of All-Star guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker. They combined to shoot 24-of-84 (28.6 percent) in Games 3 and 4, the latter of which was the lowest offensive rating for Phoenix since its 99-86 loss to the Boston Celtics on April 22.
Granted, there are irregularities that need to be accounted for. Paul apparently was not in his normal basketball routine while in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Booker’s nose was broken in Game 2 and wore a face mask in Games 3 and (most of) 4, something he asked former Detroit Pistons guard Richard Hamilton for advice for but could never seem to figure out.
Point blank, the Suns need their stars to do their thing in Game 5. It should lead to the juice they need to kickstart their offense collectively.
In the first few minutes of Game 4, Phoenix built a 14-2 lead due to its pace and execution. After having success with forward Terance Mann at the four in Game 3, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue for some reason went bigger with forward Marcus Morris. The Suns attacked this rotation on the first play, with starting forward Mikal Bridges setting a screen on Morris to clear him out of a pick-and-roll action he was unable to recover toward to help.
Whenever Los Angeles has two bigs on the floor, it’s an opportunity for the Suns to space and create more flexibility for their guards and shooters. Their next action is a very high pick-and-roll for Paul, which he comes off with more pace than he had in Game 3 and more room to operate against Zubac. If Morris or Clippers guard Reggie Jackson overcommit, it’s an open 3-pointer for Bridges or starting forwards Jae Crowder.
Stops have been key for Phoenix this series. The Clippers are one of the best teams in the NBA at switching defensively, which is why the Suns have had two of their worst shooting performances of the season in the last two games. Negate the mismatches, and you create a stalemate.
That makes it extra important that Phoenix runs whenever it does clean the glass, something Paul mentioned as a key after Game 3. That was clearly a focus in the first half, as Booker ran the floor well on this play and prevented Clippers guard Patrick Beverley from hounding him in the half court.
Once the Suns establish this energy, it opens up things for Bridges — who did not attempt a 3-pointer in Game 4 — and Crowder. But it will require consistent focus to identify their spots. On this pick-and-roll opportunity, Bridges is late to pull up to the perimeter from the corner, taking away a passing lane for Paul and leading to a turnover.
Of course, the Suns can’t play every possession in transition. Booker and Paul have to get to their spots in the half court, something that will require extra creativity and focus. Booker does not have the lateral quickness or twitchiness to get by Beverley in isolation scenarios, but he can create advantages with his height and shoulders off screen actions.
Here are two examples of when the Suns took advantage of it.
Zubac has done a better job than previous bigs Phoenix has faced while guarding Paul in switches and drop coverage, making it difficult for him to find his spots or Suns starting center Deandre Ayton over the top. In Game 3, the Clippers established a wall with their screened defender fighting over, Zubac protecting the paint and their near-side wing (starting forward Paul George and others) preventing a pass to the elbow or corner.
Los Angeles has also picked up on Paul calling Phoenix’s offense from the backcourt, something that has allowed it to get set and deny several of the Suns’ actions.
It’s conceivable that Paul will have more burst tonight now that he has two games under his belt since returning from health and safety protocols. If he can get his shot off and start to make it, it will force Zubac to continue to play up and allow more second-chance opportunities for Ayton.
However, the Suns can also be more flexible with their actions. Williams makes a great call here during the after-timeout, going to a pistol set in which the Clippers have to account for Crowder — a shooter — and Ayton, who rolls to the rim and finishes with a two-handed slam.
These sets can confuse the Clippers but must also be called for depending on time and personnel.
After watching the film, there is value in forward Abdel Nader receiving minutes over Torrey Craig. As sound as he is defensively, Craig cannot provide the same burst off the bounce as Nader to get the Clippers in rotation. While Craig is a more rangy defender, Nader is more stingy and can make plays happen that incidentally get the Suns running more.
We also saw a rotation in which Paul and backup point guard Cameron Payne played together in the second quarter. In 123 possessions in which they have shared the floor this season, Phoenix’s Net rating is 13.8 points better per 100 possessions. It offers an interesting change of pace, but it crunches their rotation and likely won’t be used extensively.
Suns fans, this is not going to be an easy game by any stretch of the imagination. Phoenix may lead 3-1, but its total margin of victory in those three wins is 11 points. This has been a very close matchup that has been decided by Ayton going bananas inside — the Suns lead points in the paint 198-140 through four games — and sheer guts and will late in games.
However, that has all been without Paul and Booker playing at their peak. If they get that to happen, this series ends tonight.
“It’s just building this thing brick by brick, game by game,” Booker said. “We’re not looking too far ahead, saying who we’re going to get in the Finals or anything like that, but we definitely understand that if we win the next one we’re into the NBA Finals.”