Much has been made of the Midrange Mafia nickname for the Phoenix Suns, with Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton all hunting, taking and making a large percentage of their shots between the restricted area and the three-point line.
Can that formula, which does not generate as many extra points (three-point shots, free throws) as their opponent on most nights, win even one playoff series, let alone four of them?
Already, these new Suns are looking suspect against the otherwise middling Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers were a barely above-average team in the regular season. Although they won at a 52-win pace with Kawhi on the court (33-19 in 52 games), they are not as good without Paul George (knee injury).
Still, the Suns were 8-0 with Kevin Durant and 34-19 with Booker (53 games) in the lineup this season overall and fully healthy entering the postseason.
Should be an easy series for the Suns, right?
The Clippers came out with a really great game defensive plan that involved changing up their coverages on nearly every possession, sandwiching Kevin Durant on every shot, and playing the passing lanes to diminish the Chris Paul / Deandre Ayton pick and roll. The new-look Suns were so flummoxed that halfway through the 6th quarter of the series they looked like a bust about to happen.
But the Clippers are not a defensive juggernaut — 17th out of 30 teams during the regular season overall, including 19th after Kawhi Leonard former Defensive Player of the Year candidate returned to health in early December.
Eventually, the Suns figured them out. Over the last 2.5 quarters of Game 2, not including the last two minutes of garbage time, the Suns outscored the Clippers by 25 points while making 73% of their shots. And side from Torrey Craig’s five three-pointers on wide open corner threes, these weren’t unexpected shots either. The Big Four got to their preferred spots and delivered.
So what can we expect the rest of this series, as it shifts to LA?
First of all, both teams are barely average in this situation. The Clippers were 16-12 at home after Leonard returned to health (including 4-1 after Paul George went down as they went against a variety of teams’ win/loss agendas), and the Suns were 12-12 in road games with Booker in the lineup (including 4-0 with Durant).
You could argue that the Clippers will be even better at home than they were in Phoenix, especially their role players, and that the Suns can’t make 73% of their shots again.
But you can also argue that the Suns won’t ever look as confused on offense again as they did the first 5.5 quarters, now that they’ve figure out the Clippers schemes. Again, the Clips are below average on defense for the year and now they’re missing one of the league’s best defenders in Paul George.
The Suns need to get this series back to ‘normal’ for both teams, going forward.
The biggest need: they need to narrow the gap on threes and frees. In the regular season, the Suns averaged, in total, only THREE fewer three pointers + free throws per game than the Clippers. But in this series so far, the Suns are taking a whopping 15.5 fewer than the Clips (9 fewer threes, 6.5 fewer free throws per game).
That gap needs to narrow. You can’t start a game with a double digit handicap. You just can’t.
If the Suns can cut that gap in half, though, they can win the series. They can afford to get beat a little bit in those areas because their better shooting inside the arc more than makes up for it. I mean, the deficit is currently 15.5 and the Suns still somehow split the games.
Imagine cutting that number in half?
The Suns have a clear gameplan now. They know how to beat the Clippers defense enough, and they haven’t even had a great Kevin Durant game yet. Durant averages 29 points per game in the playoffs for his career, and he hasn’t hit that number in either game yet (before you say he’s old now, he also averaged 29 this season in 47 games on 55/40/90 shooting splits).
The Suns bench needs to step up a bit more. The Big Four need to keep it going.
And they need to hope Russell Westbrook returns to earth, and that Kawhi Leonard can’t otherwise carry the Clippers to the series win all by himself.
Buckle up, Suns fans. Gonna be a tough weekend in LA.