The LA Clippers lost to the Phoenix Suns in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals 120-114 on Sunday, falling victim to All-Star Devin Booker’s first career triple-double.
Despite yet another heavy-lifting effort from Paul George (34 points, 7-15 from three), and the team as a whole knocking down 20 of their 47 three-point attempts, the Clippers did not have enough fuel in the tank to keep up with the Suns down the stretch of Game 1. Though the score was knotted at 93 each after the third quarter (in which an exciting Booker/George shot-making duel took place), Phoenix was able to pull away in the fourth quarter and defend their home court.
How much of this loss can be attributed to the fact that the Clippers played in Game 6 of their Conference Semifinals against the Jazz just 38 hours prior is difficult to say. The Clippers looked gassed at times, and in order to give his main workhorses a break, Lue dug deep into his bench, giving 10 players minutes. LA fell behind in these bench minutes in the fourth quarter (Rajon Rondo was a team low -14) and the starters could not dig the team out of the hole.
One of those deep bench players, DeMarcus Cousins (11 points and four rebounds in 13 minutes of action), gave a great synopsis of the loss during his postgame interview.
"This was a very winnable game,” Cousins said.“We had some miscommunications, some missed assignments defensively, overhelping in some situations, missing rotations. It was a lot of things that were correctable on our end that all played a big result in the game today."
Booker starts the series off with a bang
With backcourt mate Chris Paul sidelined due to health and safety protocols, Booker assumed the role of distributor, and performed admirably. Though he started alongside point guard Cameron Payne (who was also excellent, with nine assists and just one turnover) Booker was essentially the Suns’ floor general, though his spectacular scoring prowess was not limited in the process. Booker put up a monster stat line of 40 points (18 in the third quarter alone), 11 assists and 13 rebounds in 44 minutes of action. He scored or assisted on 26 of Phoenix’s 49 made field goals, dominating the Clippers with his pick-and-roll mastery. With LA in drop coverage, Booker was able to get to his favorite midrange shots. If they sent two bodies at him or he forced a defensive rotation, he did a fantastic job of finding his open teammates.
Though he scores in different ways, Booker is presenting the same problem that Luka Doncic did for LA. He demands extra attention from the defense, and once that attention is given, the Suns have the shooters and rim-runners to make the Clippers pay.
“Trying to take one guy out of a series is tough, especially when Booker is making the passes he did tonight,” Clippers Head Coach Tyronn Lue said postgame.
Deandre Ayton presents a new problem
Ayton also had a solid game against the Clippers, scoring 20 points and grabbing nine rebounds in 37 minutes. He’s a different animal than the centers LA has faced in the first two rounds; he’s not a stretch big like Kristaps Porzingis, and he isn’t limited solely to rim-running and finishing alley-oops like Rudy Gobert (though Ayton is very skilled in that regard as well).
Ayton is a little bit more agile,” Paul George said postgame. “A little bit more presence down low, better finisher than the bigs we faced."
How LA defends Ayton moving forward will be interesting. Ty Lue went with Ivica Zubac to start the second half due to a Marcus Morris Sr. knee injury (more on that later) and the Clippers did a better job of containing him from then on (he scored just six points in the second half). If Ayton limits the Clippers’ ability to go small, it could present problems for LA on both ends.
LA might be out yet another body
Rachel Nichols reported that Morris was experiencing knee pain in the first half, and was in the locker room getting it worked on to start the second. Morris was eventually able to return, though he only played five minutes in the second half and did not close the game for LA.
With Kawhi Leonard still out with a vague knee injury (the team is still defining it as a right knee sprain) and Serge Ibaka out for the season after having back surgery, the Clippers simply cannot afford to lose a key piece like Morris. Though he was having one of his cold nights (3-11 from the field, 0-5 from three), he is an essential piece of LA’s small lineup, and brings a defensive versatility that allows the Clippers to switch.
Lue was unable to offer an update on Morris after the game. If he cannot go in Game 2 or is limited, the Clippers’ rotation will start to look a bit bleak.
LA will aim to bounce back in Game 2 on Tuesday at 6 p.m. It is still unclear if Paul will be cleared to play by then, but the Clippers will have their hands full regardless. The Suns are a dominant, deep team, and they are being led by a young superstar who is clearly out for blood in his first postseason.