Give credit to the Los Angeles Clippers for their scheme to defend a high-powered but fledgling Phoenix Suns offense with too many options to shut down completely.
In the first three games of the series, the plan has been over-playing passing lanes, double or triple-teaming Kevin Durant on the catch, letting Devin Booker cook with mostly single-coverage, and enticing lesser shooters to shoot by funneling them wide open shots.
The Phoenix Suns have looked confused at times, the offense looking more clunky than high-powered, and yet the Suns still have the 4th best offense in the postseason so far, scoring 120 points per 100 possessions. That’s a good tick higher than their regular season number (114.5) over 82 games, but about par with the 8-game sample with Kevin Durant in the lineup.
After watching the first three games of the series, would you have guessed the Suns offense compares so well to the other playoff teams?
To call the offense clunky is being kind. One of the greatest scorers of all time looks like he’s just recently joined a new team right when the opponent’s defensive intensity ratchets up and they have days to scheme before each game. He’s getting the attention an all-time leading scorer in his prime is supposed to get: double and tripled teamed — front, side and back — on every catch.
The Suns see this, though. And fairly often, he’s simply standing in the weak side corner watching the rest of the offense like everyone else. If the Clippers are going to focus their defense on Durant, that gives the other Suns players more space and fewer defenders to worry about.
“I almost feel bad for Kevin sometimes because he’s like an expensive decoy out there,” Suns coach Monty Williams joked before the game. “He’s standing at the 28-foot hash and the defender is right in his face. That gives Book a number of opportunities to attack the basket. Even when we run him in actions, sometimes two guys go with Kevin when he comes off of a screen. So that opens up the floor for everyone else.”
Booker says he ran over to Durant after many of his shots in Game 3, thanking him for opening that up. Booker’s never had spacing created like this for him before.
“I probably didn’t create that,” Durant joked. “He’s so good, he can get whatever he wants. They just can’t help as much or as aggressively.”
Durant consistently says he likes the spacing he’s providing the other guys, and the numbers show it. How else do you describe one of the league’s best playoff offenses while their best scorer is barely making an impact?
Devin Booker has been the biggest beneficiary so far. He’s scoring a league-best 36.3 points per game on 60% shooting in this series. Good thing he’s stepping up, considering the only other player to take advantage of this extra spacing so far is Torrey Craig (18 points per game on 69% shooting).
Yet the Suns have a 2-1 lead anyway, so Booker knows the heavily undermanned Clippers — now missing both of their own All-Stars — will have to try even more things.
“I expect the Clippers to make an adjustment,” Booker said after his 45-point game in the Suns win. “Try to take me away and it’ll be his turn to do it. That’s just how we play.”
You can’t double team both Booker and Durant. The math just doesn’t work. You can try to scramble to the ball on every pass, moving your double from player to player. But this is the NBA, not high school. NBA players take advantage of constantly scrambling defenses.
Our own Trevor Booth wrote how Durant needs to up his aggression, and force the issue more. For his part, Durant is just letting the game come to him. He’s averaging more than 43 minutes per game in this series, but he’s not having to exert as much effort every minutes on offense as he did in Brooklyn the last few years.
As Booker says, the Clippers will adjust to his own explosive scoring, which will only lead to more shots for Durant. For his career, Durant averages 29 points on 21 shots per game in the playoffs. So far in Phoenix (only 3 games), it’s 26 points on just 16 shots.
Durant is averaging 26.7 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.3 steals per game, hasn’t posted less than 25/6/5 in any game, and yet he’s considered ‘underdelivering’.
I’d say it’s everyone not named Durant, Booker or Torrey Craig that’s underdelivering so far over three games. And that includes the coach, who out-schemed himself in the Game 1 loss and has largely cut the bench out of the picture entirely.
Look at these differences, from regular season to playoffs. What jumps out?
All of the starters minutes are up, across the board. The shot attempts and shooting percentage disparity is a bit jarring, right?
Craig and Booker are doing great, but Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton are struggling and the bench has been abysmal when given the chance. Williams finally turned to Damion Lee the last two games for some kind of production off the bench. He’s not doing much (three shots in 2 games), but he’s not getting rocked either. That’s a plus.
A big blow to the bench has been Cam Payne’s injury (lower back), while Terrence Ross went from a huge bench role to barely playing. T.J. Warren has been in and out of the lineup since being acquired at the trade deadline with Durant, and now is totally out. It’s a trust thing with the coach, and Ross and Warren just don’t have it. Maybe against a more offense-oriented team in the next round (almost certainly the Nuggets), we’ll see more of Ross and Warren.
In the meantime, we can hope Cam Payne returns soon. Payne had a huge impact against the Clippers in 2021, scoring 29 points and dishing 9 assists with no turnovers in the Game 2 ‘Valley Oop’ game. Other bench players will eventually have to play like they belong, make some shots and restore the coach’s confidence. Because we can’t go through two months of playoff basketball with Booker and Durant averaging 43+ minutes per game.
Stay tuned to see how Game 4 unfolds on Saturday afternoon. We’ve already had the welcomes-to-the-playoffs game, the Scott Foster game and the Norm Powell game. What’s next?