This was supposed to be it.
The Phoenix Suns, on their home floor, up three games to one with a chance to advance to the NBA Finals. How many other times can you say that happened? Actually, the Suns franchise has never had the cushion of a 3-1 lead in the conference finals. In nine prior tries, they’ve never been better than 2-2 after the first four games.
The stage was set, and the moment was right. Chris Paul, in front of Phoenix’s fans for the first time in these Western Conference Finals, had his best chance to advance to the championship round for the first time. Devin Booker, who carried the Suns through poverty in his first five seasons, could now take them somewhere they had rarely gone before.
Point God playing for his first career NBA Finals appearance tonight. pic.twitter.com/YFBNFBVOUS— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) June 29, 2021
The #Suns' combined record in Devin Booker's first five seasons: 121-280. Phoenix finished at the bottom of the West three times.— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) June 29, 2021
Now, he could take the franchise to its third NBA Finals appearance. pic.twitter.com/Xf3GOZeV6P
And when it was announced that the Los Angeles Clippers would be without starting center Ivica Zubac due to a right MCL sprain, it appeared to be the perfect moment for Suns starting center Deandre Ayton to carry on his remarkable postseason, one that overshadowed all doubt once casted upon his career.
What's the line for DA tonight? pic.twitter.com/OeFB0JAkJ5— The Bright Side (@BrightSideSun) June 29, 2021
Instead, the storyline crumbled. The pulse of the city flatlined. And the Suns have more questions than convictions following their 116-102 loss to the Clippers in Game 5 of the conference finals at home on Monday night.
Phoenix still leads the series three games to two and has multiple opportunities to advance to its first NBA Finals since 1992-93, but the finish line now appears much further.
“The desperation has to be there — that’s the deal,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “Just because you have a lead in the series doesn’t mean you can show up and they’re going to give it to you.
“We have to understand that, and I think we do now.”
From the jump, it felt like the Suns’ celebration had already begun. Their players came out flat and ended up flattened by a 20-5 Clipper run in the first five minutes, which included eight points from Los Angeles forward and infamous former Sun Marcus Morris.
Phoenix scrapped to cut its deficit to 36-26 at the end of the first quarter and 59-52 at halftime, but it felt like frustration piled up rather than jubilation that previously set off crowds inside Phoenix Suns Arena.
Outside of Paul and Booker, the Suns had 24 points on 10-of-24 shooting at halftime. Ayton, his best matchup being Morris at 6-foot-9 or a worn-down version of center Demarcus Cousins in the back end of a zone defense, had just six points on 3-of-5 shooting and four rebounds.
It was not the Suns team that Williams expected.
“It’s just unacceptable the way we started the game,” he said. “A big hole for us, pretty obvious that we can’t play with a, ‘show-up,’ mentality. We showed up in the first quarter, and they played with desperation. Simple and plain.”
After the Suns took a shot to the mouth, it woke them up somewhat. They started the third quarter on a 10-2 run, taking their first lead at 62-61 with 8:27 left in the period. But that would be the extent of their early resiliency.
Los Angeles responded with an 18-5 run over the 4:06, which included 13 points from starting forward Paul George. George had 20 of his game-high 41 points in the third quarter on 15-of-20 shooting, someone the Suns felt they put less defensive resistance on than normal.
“We didn’t show them enough bodies,” Williams said. “And when they have a small lineup like that, they’re going to try to spread you out. Again, it comes down to being able to guard the ball and forcing them to shoot tough shots.”
Trailing 91-78 at the end of the third quarter, the Suns had one last chance to cut into the Clippers’ lead. Employing a smaller lineup with backup forwards Torrey Craig and Dario Saric at the four and five, respectively, and Booker, Paul and backup forward Cameron Johnson, Phoenix went on a 16-7 run to start the fourth, including a 3-point play from Johnson that led to an additional foul shot after George sent Craig to the ground.
Cam Johnson's play this series >>> pic.twitter.com/gZxqfMtmEC— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) June 29, 2021
With a chance to cut the Suns’ deficit to one possession, Craig missed the free throw, and so did his team on its comeback effort. Los Angeles answered again with a 10-2 run, including eight points from starting point guard Reggie Jackson that was capped off by a one-handed dunk to suck the energy out of Phoenix.
The Suns scored just six points over the last 4:47, and all hopes for a special night were instead silenced.
“It’s on all of us,” Booker said. “They came out, they punched us in the face to start the game. And I think we showed it at spots tonight and at certain times, but they’re not going to go away easily. So we have to be locked in from beginning to end.”
After shooting a combined 18-of-59 (30.5 percent) in his last three games, Booker led the Suns with 31 points on 9-of-22 from the field, including 4-of-6 from 3-point range. However, none of his triples came in the second half.
Booker was followed by Paul, who had a series-best 22 points on 8-of-19 shooting along with eight assists and three rebounds. Now three games back from the health and safety protocols, Paul has still not appeared to be his normal self, missing all six of his 3-point attempts and failing to locate Ayton to take advantage of the Clippers’ smaller lineup.
“Got to do a better job getting it to him (Ayton), getting our spacing right knowing that they’re undersized,” Paul said. “They got like three people boxing him out or trying to hold him down. So we just got to pick our spots better and be more aggressive.”
Ayton recorded a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds on 5-of-9 shooting but was not nearly as dominant as before. He had one total rebound in the first and fourth quarters and only had three offensive rebounds after recording nine in Game 4.
Without Zubac available for the Clippers, Phoenix won the rebounding battle by just one (41-40) and was dominated in the paint by Los Angeles, 58-32. For reference, the Suns led in points in the paint 198-140 through the first four games of the series.
“You can blame it on everybody, a lot of straight-line drives and no help at the same time,” Booker said. “So this is a five-man defense, it’s been that way the whole season and we have to be better.”
Phoenix shot below 35 percent from the 3-point line for the fourth straight game, making 9-of-26 attempts (34.6 percent) after starting the game 5-of-8 (62.5 percent).
Starting forwards Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder continued to struggle, shooting a combined 1-of-6 (16.7 percent) from 3-point range in Game 5 and now a 13-of-44 combined clip in this series (29.5 percent).
Johnson continued to play effectively in these conference finals, recording 14 points, four rebounds and three steals in 23 minutes. He shot 5-of-6 from the field and 3-of-3 from beyond the arc and is now shooting 70 percent in this series with a 52.9 percent mark from 3-point range.
The Suns have another crack at advancing to the NBA Finals on Wednesday. It will certainly be a more difficult environment, given there’s added pressure from the Clippers’ momentum and the possibility to force a Game 7.
Phoenix hasn’t been rattled by precarious situations all season long, and this will be its biggest test of that. It is confident it will step up to the plate.
“We’re going to be ready,” Booker said. “We’re going to look at the film of the game and make the adjustments that are necessary, but still having fun with it. The process of this and the journey of it is second-to-none.
“I said it after we lost the first one (Game 3) — obviously, we didn’t want to lose any games but coming back into the film session, getting together as a team and talking everything out, that’s part of it, too. So once you start enjoying that and having fun with that, good things happen for our team and we’ve responded well all season.”