If you’re a fan of the Phoenix Suns, you’re probably wondering why the heck Deandre Ayton didn’t get the ball much in the Suns’ 116-102 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals on Monday night.
It should have been a match made for Ayton. With Clippers starting center Ivica Zubac unavailable due to a right MCL sprain, Los Angeles had no capable player above 6-foot-8 to stick with Ayton (sorry, Demarcus Cousins) laterally in the paint or above the rim.
Given how well Zubac guarded the Suns’ high pick-and-roll in Games 3 and 4, it also appeared this was an opportunity for Phoenix starting point guard Chris Paul to more easily get to his spots from mid-range. That should have opened more looks for starting forwards Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder, who have struggled from beyond the arc this series, and incidentally the floodgates for the Suns’ offense.
But none of that came to fruition. The Clippers struck the Suns with a 20-5 run to start the game and led for all but 20 seconds of it. They outscored Phoenix in the paint 58-32 and lost the rebounding battle by just one, one contest after Ayton had a career-high 22 rebounds against Zubac.
It was an effort that Suns coach Monty Williams himself said was unexpected.
“We will be better the next game,” Williams said. “That’s paramount on my mind is, we got to play with way more force and a competitive edge and we got to guard the ball.”
Williams and Paul said after the game that the Clippers had “a lot of bodies” on Ayton, limiting his impact. That may be true, but there was certainly not a concentrated effort to get him the ball inside and establish a presence in the first place.
If a team has a glaring weakness you know you can exploit, you have to go at that early and often. On the first play of the game, the Suns missed Ayton as he ran the floor and got behind Morris near the rim. Starting shooting guard Devin Booker then elected for a contested mid-range shot rather than dumping the ball to Ayton after the Clippers were too far in help.
That theme continued throughout the night. The Suns shot just 35 of their 84 (41.6 percent) of their shots in the paint and restricted area, according to NBA.com. Some of that had to do with the Clippers’ zone defense. Others came with the Suns simply not prioritizing Ayton enough.
Paul, of all point guards, should realize when he needs to feed his big the rock. On this play, he gets an elbow screen from Ayton, skates by Clippers forward Terance Mann but doesn’t let Ayton complete his dive for a layup. Granted, Ayton could have rolled harder but Paul was not aggressive in finding him or shooting his own jumper.
We saw this throughout the first quarter. Booker had arguably his best performance since Game 1 with 31 points on 9-of-22 shooting (4-of-6 from 3-point range) but was equally responsible for not getting Ayton the ball. He takes a contested stepback here instead of feeding Ayton, who is switched on to 6-foot-1 Patrick Beverley with a clear path to the rim.
In total, the Suns had just six of their 22 shot attempts in the first quarter inside the paint or restricted area. Ayton had just two points on two shots and zero rebounds.
The second quarter was not much better for Phoenix inside. Ayton finished with just four points on three shots, even when the Clippers sparingly used Cousins. But this time, it was partly on Ayton.
He has done a great job understanding his role this postseason, not attempting any shots out of his comfort zone and buying into his two-way play. But when he gets switches on him like these, he has to demand the ball. In the second clip below, he doesn’t give himself a chance to make any kind of play with Beverley on him.
By halftime, Ayton was a non-factor, which is one of the biggest mistakes Williams and the Suns could have made. Sure, one of their concerns was getting Booker and Paul more involved after they struggled to have a strong collective effort in Games 3 and 4. But for Phoenix’s backcourt, including backup guard Cameron Payne, to take 25 of the Suns’ 43 shots while Ayton had just five in the first half? That can’t happen.
The Suns started aggressively pursuing their high pick-and-roll in the first five minutes of the second half, and it worked well. Paul got a look at the rim and this pull-up shot below, when he actively pursued his own look.
Still, there were times in which Phoenix did not make Ayton a priority. Bridges does a nice job of getting baseline here but could have made his life much easier with a quick lob to Ayton.
Not even two minutes later, Crowder has an opportunity to hit a streaking Ayton for a slam in transition. He misses him, then later in the play is about a half-second late to recognize Ayton is open for a dump-off pass.
Crowder also did not give Ayton a chance to score here and throws a bad turnover with 6-foot-3 Reggie Jackson on him.
Some of these plays can be attributed to the Clippers putting Ayton in precarious positions to catch the ball. But remember, he is a great athlete. This play below was something we saw a lot of in Games 3 and 4.
With the Suns unable to establish an interior edge, they matched Los Angeles with a lineup that included Paul, Booker and backup forwards Cameron Johnson, Torrey Craig and Dario Saric to start the fourth quarter. It got them running in transition, but it was also a sign of Phoenix conceding to its opponent’s style rather than setting the tone, something it said earlier this series it did not want to do.
“Obviously last series, they (the Denver Nuggets) did a lot of small-ball lineups and we just told him (Ayton), ‘Dominate the paint,’” Crowder said after Game 1. “Let everything else take care of itself, dominate the paint, fly around on defense and he did exactly that. Made those guys adjust a bit.”
The Suns still have two opportunities left to advance to their third NBA Finals in their history. But after losing a big opportunity at home, their position feels much more unsteady.
Williams, Booker and Paul each said after Game 5 they were confident the Suns would respond. That will require a conscious effort to get back to Ayton, who has been the key to this series and was the missing piece on Monday.