How the Suns dissect the Clippers
A film room recipe for the Clippers to adjust for Game 2
BY DAVID THORPE
Losing the first two games was OK against the Mavericks and the Jazz. But for the Clippers it is incredibly unlikely to work against the Suns, who will be much better than either of those teams once Chris Paul returns. Tuesday’s Game 2 will tell us a lot about the Clippers’ title chances.
Here are four areas where the Clippers could improve from Game 1:
Suns weakside action
Most NBA offenses are based on a shot creator or two, and well-spaced shooters. On the Suns, those shooters routinely do a lot more than wait for the ball. While Devin Booker goes to work, his teammates screen, cut, and generally keep defenders too busy to bother much with Booker. This has been constant, all season, it’s so baked into Suns players team DNA they even do it when faced with a trap on the ball.
Here we see Booker making the pass to the middle after the trap. Opportunity! Now the Suns can play four-on-three.
Watch Cameron Johnson. Most players would slide to the corner, hoping the ball swing to them for a 3. But the Suns know that would have made it easy for Rajon Rondo to bother two men: Jae Crowder and Johnson.
Crowder “pins” Rondo down by the basket. This puts Rondo in a terrible spot.
He can fight around Johnson to get to Crowder quickly--and leave Johnson wide open a step from the rim.
Or he can stay “home” on Johnson until Crowder gets the ball, when he will have a hell of a race.
Paul George is such an incredible defender he almost got to Crowder anyway. But what’s clear is that the Clippers have to be sharper on dealing with this kind of off-ball movement. The trick is communication and anticipation.
To beat the Jazz four straight times, the Clippers extended their defensive pressure, making it harder for Utah to pass the ball around. They were susceptible to backdoor cuts by Jazz players, but the Jazz seldom did it.
The Suns won’t make that mistake. They use backdoor cuts constantly. Whether it’s the give and go we see from Bridges to Ayton to Bridges, or the way the Suns took advantage of Luke Kennard “top blocking” (not letting his man pop out away from the basket to get open) by hitting an open teammate who had a better angle to throw the backdoor pass, it’s clear the Suns had a plan to exploit any efforts of the Clippers to take the Suns out of their offense the way they did the Jazz.
The solution for the Clippers is to be more discerning about when, where, and who should deny. Rather than pressuring everyone far from the hoop, maybe save it for Paul George.
Zone better, or not at all
The Clippers zone defense was effective in Game 1 against Utah, and they tried it a few times against the Suns, too. The Jazz almost lost Game 1 because it was so effective.
Phoenix knew exactly what to do, and shredded it. They got the ball to the middle of the court and attacked downhill, then had the luxury of deciding whether to shoot from the inside or kick it out. The Clippers can still try to zone up some, but they must not let the ball touch the paint so easily. Zones break down when that happens.
Have a Devin Booker plan
Let’s face it, Devin Booker is an impossible cover. But it’s still worth having a plan. The Clippers tried to have either Ivica Zubac or DeMarcus Cousins in the game when DeAndre Ayton was in (the two Clippers played 31 of Ayton’s 37 total minutes).
When they didn’t have a center in the game, the Clippers switched all screens. But with a center they dropped him near to the paint whenever Ayton set a ball screen. Doing so almost automatically gives up a 3 for Booker. It forces the Clippers’ guard to either go under the screen to prevent a drive, a no-no against Booker, or over the top. That can inhibit some scoring guards from shooting an off the dribble 3, but not the 6-5 Booker. He scored 40 on 29 shots and had 11 assists, going three-for-seven from 3.
For the Clippers to take Game 2, Booker will have to be less efficient. Trapping or jump-switching takes away this kind of 3, and would make things more challenging for him. Keeping him guessing would be great for them too. What won’t work is letting such a skilled and determined scorer know in advance that the center won’t bother him. That is an invitation to a 3. This is a player who made eight 3s, as part of a 47-point outburst, to send LeBron’s Lakers home. That’s something the Clippers would like to avoid.
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