NBA Playoffs, Phoenix Suns

Suns’ resilience will be put to the test after blown opportunity in Game 5

The Phoenix Suns had a golden opportunity to close out the LA Clippers in Game 5 and advance to the NBA Finals. Now their resilience will be tested.

Resilience and poise have been staples for the Phoenix Suns all season long. As a younger team, with four of their top-seven rotation players experiencing playoff basketball for the first time, those tenets have been instrumental for Monty Williams’ squad during this enjoyable postseason run that has them one win away from the NBA Finals.

But over the last few weeks, it’s been relatively smooth sailing for Phoenix. Entering Monday’s Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, the Suns held a 3-1 lead over the LA Clippers. They had won 10 of their last 11 games dating back to the first round, and despite close calls in Games 2 and 4 of this series, the fact that they would have a chance to close out at home, in front of their roaring fans, against a team missing Kawhi Leonard, was obviously encouraging.

Instead, Phoenix came out flat and paid dearly for it, falling 116-102 in Game 5. In just their second home loss of the postseason, they blew a golden opportunity to advance to the Finals for the first time since 1993 and just the second time in franchise history.

They got happy on the farm.

“The desperation has to be there, that’s the deal,” head coach Monty Williams said after the loss. “Just because you have a lead in the series doesn’t mean you can show up and they’re gonna give it to you. We have to understand that, and I think we do now. We will be better when we show up the next time we play. But their desperation, their competitive edge tonight was consistent for 48 minutes; we did it in spurts, and we certainly didn’t start the game with it.”

Phoenix Suns face adversity yet again, only this time it’s self-inflicted

It was clear from the opening five minutes which team was playing with a sense of urgency and which team expected the positive vibes to carry them across the finish line. The Clippers started Game 5 on a 20-5 run, putting the Suns in an early hole they could never fully climb out of.

“It’s on all of us,” Devin Booker said. “They came out, they punched us in the face to start the game. I think we showed it in spots tonight at certain times, but they’re not gonna go away easily. So we have to be locked in from beginning to end.”

By the end of the first quarter, the Clippers led by 10, closing the opening period on an 11-5 run after Phoenix had cut the deficit to 4 points. LA shot 15-for-23 in the first 12 minutes.

“It’s just unacceptable the way we started the game,” Williams said. “It was a big hole for us. It’s 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.”

Booker, who led the team with 31 points on 9-of-22 shooting from the floor and 4-of-6 shooting from downtown, hit a key 3-pointer right before the halftime buzzer to pull Phoenix within 7 points at the break. Unfortunately, he was also repeatedly targeted on the defensive end, with larger wings like Paul George and Marcus Morris bullying him on the way to the basket or in the post.

Morris had 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting at halftime, and as a team, the Clippers shot 8-for-11  in the first half with Booker as the primary defender.

It wasn’t just Book, however. Deandre Ayton, who was a team-worst minus-22 in 37 minutes, had real problems against LA’s small-ball lineups with Ivica Zubac sidelined by a right MCL sprain.

“Guarding the ball. Simple as that,” Williams said when asked about his team’s biggest issue in Game 5. “That’s Basketball Universal 101, you gotta be able to guard the ball. And they hit some tough shots, and you give them credit, but they had 58 points in the paint. That’s not something you would’ve expected, especially with them not having Zubac tonight.”

The Suns have always been better as a scrambling defense rather than a stifling unit from the point of attack, but Williams noted the lack of bodies and limbs deterring the Clippers from driving and getting to the rim. Aside from Paul George’s monster 41-point, 13-rebound, 6-assist performance on 15-of-20 shooting, LA finished with 58 points in the paint to the Suns’ 32. Before Game 5, Phoenix had outscored the Clippers by 58 points in the paint through four games.

That had been the Suns’ greatest source of strength to combat Los Angeles’ 3-point attack. On a night where Ayton managed a disappointing 10 points on only nine shot attempts, that disparity inside was glaring, and the results only drove home the point further: Not only did the Suns give up the second-most points they’ve surrendered all postseason, but it was also the first time in the playoffs that Phoenix allowed a team to shoot better than 50 percent (54.8 percent).

“Our offense feeds off our defense, so we’ve just gotta remember that,” Chris Paul said.

The problems didn’t stop there though. The Suns committed 14 turnovers to the Clippers’ nine, and those turnovers turned into 23 points for LA.

“That was uncharacteristic of us, especially me,” Paul said. “I had a couple turnovers early in the game, first and second quarter, and they converted on all of them.”

The Suns fought back and actually reclaimed a one-point lead briefly in the third quarter. But every time they made a run, LA responded. The Clippers out-worked, out-executed and out-coached the Suns in what could’ve been a breakthrough moment.

Despite still being up 3-2 in the series, doubt is starting to creep in that such a young team can close out a more experienced, resilient Clippers group that’s battled back from 2-0 deficits in each of the last two rounds.

After all, the national narrative surrounding this fun Suns team has shifted yet again after the Clippers decisively won Game 3, narrowly lost Game 4 and resiliently battled to take Game 5. When the Suns beat the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, it was because LeBron James wasn’t 100 percent and Anthony Davis got hurt. When they swept the Denver Nuggets, it was because Jamal Murray and PJ Dozier were out. When they built a 3-1 lead on the Clippers, it was because Kawhi Leonard was out and Paul George missed a pair of free throws.

That lazy approach overlooks the adversity the Suns have had to overcome, as well as the undeniable truth that every team in this postseason has dealt with a significant injury of some sort. People quickly forget that the Lakers only built a 2-1 series lead when Chris Paul couldn’t use his right arm for three straight games, and while AD’s injury obviously played a role in Phoenix winning three straight to close out, so did Devin Booker’s dominance against the NBA’s best defense and Paul working his shoulder injury out.

And let’s not forget Paul testing positive for COVID-19, which kept him away from basketball activities for more than a week leading into this series. Navigating these playoff waters for the first time, especially with their veteran leader banged up or isolating from the team, is not something that should be overlooked, even if Leonard’s absence has been unquestionably big.

Painting the Suns as frauds simply because they demolished two banged-up teams ignores that this young group is a league-best 70-25 since the NBA bubble began last year, that they only experienced losing streaks of any kind four times this season, or how Phoenix had the best record against winning teams this year. This isn’t some lucky group in the right place at the right time; the Suns have been legitimate contenders all year, routinely bounced back from losses and only losing three games in a row once, back in January.

Now, that resiliency Monty always talks about will be put to the ultimate test against a Clippers team known for that very same attribute.

“Getting your butt kicked like that should turn it on, and I think our guys are feeling it right now,” he said. “We’ve already talked about it, we’ll talk about it again tomorrow, but from a competitive standpoint, they got us. That should tun your switch on. We should play Suns basketball with that edge and relentlessness every time we step on the floor.”

That will require better efforts from the team’s best players, plain and simple. Booker showed up offensively with 31 points, but he wasn’t efficient, hunted for fouls too often and was targeted on defense. Chris Paul, whose return has unfortunately slowed down the offense, hasn’t been his usual self, making just 19 of his 60 shots through three games.

Jae Crowder hasn’t hit double figures in the scoring column since Game 1 and he’s been ice-cold from deep, shooting 6-for-26 (23.1 percent) from long range. Mikal Bridges has been a virtual non-factor, averaging 8.6 points per game and getting burned by both Paul George and Reggie Jackson —  a startling development compared to the “Mikal Jail” fans are accustomed to seeing.

Even Deandre Ayton, who’s been the Suns’ most consistent playoff performer, completely fell off a cliff in Game 5, and Phoenix has actually been a team-worst minus-42 when he’s been on the court in this series. Williams is hardly free from blame, as his decision to give spot minutes to Abdel Nader — who missed the last 31 games of the regular season and first 12 games of the playoffs due to knee surgery — over Torrey Craig has been a bizarre one.

Throw in the team’s 30.9 percent shooting from 3-point range for the series and it’s easy to see why Suns supporters are starting to feel nervous about a matchup that’s felt surprisingly even. How they adjust, after making all the right adjustments all season long, could mean the difference between closing out in Game 6 and coming back home for a nerve-racking Game 7 against a more experienced Clippers side.

“Right now is the biggest moment of our season,” Cameron Johnson said. “This is what we put in all the work for. So we have no other choice but to respond with everything we’ve talked about, with poise, and then go back to LA and get after them.”

For Booker’s part, he’s embracing the challenge of responding to a blown opportunity by looking at the film to make adjustments while also still having fun.

“The process of this and the journey of it is second to none,” he said. “I said it after we lost the first one, obviously you don’t wanna 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, then good things happen for our team, and we’ve responded well all season.”

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