PHOENIX — Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton was a narrator for the team’s playoff hype video posted to social media. His oration outlined what it will take for the Suns to win their first-ever championship.
“We know the goal, we know our destination,” Ayton said. “Consistency, when it comes to togetherness and sacrifices.”
It is known throughout the NBA the Suns have the talent to win the title. They added Kevin Durant, who is still arguably the best player in the world, to couple with Devin Booker, a like-minded player with his scoring ability and competitiveness.
But behind them and 15-time All-Star Chris Paul and rising center Deandre Ayton, there are questions if the Suns can come together. Durant played just eight games with Phoenix before its playoff run began, and the team’s bench capability is weaker since it lost forwards Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder in the deal for Durant.
The Suns’ 115-110 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 of their first-round series Sunday night at Footprint Center showed those questions are currently stalling them. Meanwhile, Los Angeles — a competitor for a championship in recent seasons — clearly targeted its best player, Kawhi Leonard, who had 38 points and two key 3-pointers to help seal the game, and advantages with its depth to to steal homecourt advantage in this best-of-seven series.
“It’s one game,” Suns coach Monty Williams said of his message to the team. “We’ll look at the film and regroup and get ready for the big game here when we show up on Tuesday (for Game 2).”
The Suns are in the playoffs, a time when they to be set on their strengths and find ways to minimize their weaknesses. Phoenix does not have a lot of time to figure things out, so every move and change in this first-round series is extremely important.
Phoenix was competitive with the Clippers throughout and ultimately lost a game in which it allowed 14 offensive rebounds — five of which came in the fourth quarter — and was outscored 34 to 10 by Los Angeles’ bench.
The Suns had a chance to win the game, but before then, they showed they have plenty to correct.
Phoenix got off to a very slow start, which was unexpected after it had more than a week to rest Durant, Ayton, Booker and starting point guard Chris Paul.
Phoenix led 10-8 but did not grab the lead again for two more quarters. It was outscored 22-8 for the rest of the period and sunk into a 15-point deficit in the second quarter.
In that time, the Suns clearly showed they do not have a foundation beyond their starters.
Torrey Craig, who has greater length at a listed 6-foot-7, started in place of 6-foot-4 wing Josh Okogie, who was in the starting five for the last 25 games of the regular season.
Williams said Craig and Ish Wainwright off the bench would be a matchup problem for Leonard, who is a lengthy and physical player.
However, the moves cost the Suns the continuity they had looked to build at the end of the regular season. At one point, Phoenix had a lineup with Booker, backup guard Landry Shamet, Okogie, Wainwright and backup center Bismack Biyombo.
According to Cleaning the Glass, that lineup had not played at least 15 possessions together before the game.
Phoenix’s offense saw Booker as its primary scorer with six points in the first quarter. Craig had six and a very impressive statistical performance with 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting (2-of-4 from 3-point range) with four rebounds.
In the meantime, Durant, who is a two-time NBA Finals MVP, was restricted to the corner of the Suns’ offense in set plays. He missed two corner shots to start the game and was scoreless in the first quarter for just the second time in 156 playoff games, according to Stathead.
Durant got incredibly hot in the second quarter with 17 points as the Suns used a 27-17 run to cut what was a 15-point Clipper lead to five at halftime. Phoenix had 14 fastbreak points compared to Los Angeles’ six through two quarters.
“We just got stops and was able to get out and run and just play off the pass, play off the pick-and-roll,” Durant said. “Just make quick decisions once we got stops. So I think that’s the name of the game for us, is getting the rebound, getting out and going finding a play from there.”
Phoenix built a 77-68 lead with 4:42 left in the third quarter, as its ability to defend push pace seemed to be too much for the Clippers.
But unlike the Suns, Los Angeles has identities it has forged for multiple seasons, even though its personnel is slightly different. Coach Tyronn Lue, who won an NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, relied on his bench to out-last Phoenix. His schematic adjustments — which included double-teams on Durant to force him away from his spots, defensive switches that forced Leonard on to the Suns’ ball handlers and creative usage with his wing depth — got the Suns out of sync.
The Clippers tied the game at the end of the third quarter and were in control through the final six minutes of the game, which seemed odd since the Suns were still within two possessions until 1:33 remained. Los Angeles missed 3-pointers before three key ones that showed it was in control of the game.
“Limiting them to those possessions, one-shot defense and get the rebound and do what we do,” Booker said of keys for the next game.
The Suns played six players in their bench rotation Sunday. Each player who had at least five minutes logged was at least a minus-8 for the game.
Combined, the bench shot 3-of-12 from the field.
“I didn’t think we were organized enough to get those guys shots,” Williams said. “I thought the way they matched us, that messed with us a little bit. We have to just run our stuff, and that’s what we’re going to talk about tomorrow: Just run our stuff, no matter how they match up and make them play against our offense. Our offense is pretty good.”
Williams said he would have given backup wing Terrence Ross, who played just four minutes Sunday, more run “just to get us somebody who can knock down a shot and space the floor.”
The Suns and the Clippers will play Tuesday in Game 2, which is suddenly a must-win for Phoenix. It had issues that prevented it from winning Sunday’s game.
Can it do enough to fix its issues from Game 1?