Ten Takeaways from Suns’ Game 1 Loss to Clippers

The Phoenix Suns lost the first game of their 2023 playoff run Sunday night against the Los Angeles Clippers, 115-110. 

Phoenix fell into a double-digit deficit in the first two quarters before it roared back to take a 77-68 lead with 4:42 left in the third quarter. But things got dicey from there. 

The Clippers went on a 13-4 run to tie the game at 81 at the end of the third quarter. The final period was back-and-forth until Los Angeles forward Kawhi Leonard and guard Eric Gordon hit three combined 3-pointers to give their team a 109-103 lead with 1:33 left. 

The Suns had a chance to tie the game when they trailed 111-108 with 17.7 seconds left, but guard Devin Booker was blocked at the rim by Russell Westbrook and the ball went out of bounds. 

Phoenix was led by forward Kevin Durant, who had 27 points on 7-of-15 shooting (3-of-7 from 3-point range) with 11 assists and nine rebounds. 

Leonard led the Clippers with 38 points on 13-of-24 shooting with five assists and five rebounds. 

The Suns will return to action Tuesday against the Clippers at 7 p.m. at Footprint Center. That game will be televised by TNT. 

Here are 10 takeaways from the Suns’ Game 1 loss. 

New Rotations

Phoenix has an unpredictable bench given there are new faces and rotations to be made. But Suns coach Monty Williams may have changed things too much. 

The Suns started forward Torrey Craig in place of wing Josh Okogie. The move seemed to work as Craig had a big game with 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting with four rebounds, but it disrupted continuity. Okogie started the last 25 games of the regular season for the Suns and only played seven minutes. 

Phoenix also introduced lineups it had not played extensively before. At one point in the first quarter, Booker played alongside Okogie, backup guard Landry Shamet, backup forward Ish Wainwright, and backup center Bismack Biyombo. That lineup has not played at least 15 possessions together, according to calculations from Cleaning the Glass.  

Center Jock Landale entered the game for Biyombo in the third quarter, creating a lineup that has only been together for five possessions. 

Backup wing Terrence Ross, who contributed positively in the final games of the regular season, only played four minutes. Wing T.J. Warren, who played strongly at the end of the season, and backup guard Damion Lee, who ranked third in the NBA in 3-point percentage (44.5), did not play. 

14 Offensive Rebounds 

The Clippers won the rebounding battle by seven (49 to 42) and had 14 offensive boards, including five that came in the fourth quarter. 

Westbrook had five of his team’s 14 offensive boards and created a key one with 2:40 left in the fourth quarter, which led to a 3-pointer from Leonard that gave the Clippers a 103-99 lead. 

Paul was the Suns’ rebounding leader (11) followed by center Deandre Ayton, who had a chance to secure a defensive rebound during a 51-second possession from the Clippers that led to free throws for Westbrook. But the ball slipped out of his hands and Los Angeles had another chance. 

Ayton had eight rebounds, but plenty of fans were disappointed with his effort. The Suns will have to be better in hustle stats to win this series. 

Kawhi Leonard’s Big Game 

Make no mistake: Leonard is still one of the NBA’s best players when healthy. 

Leonard had 24 second-half points, 11 of which came in the third quarter and 13 of which came in the fourth. He hit two big threes in the final minutes to put the Clippers ahead for good and was clearly a tough guard for the Suns. 

Phoenix had bigger players on Leonard – including Craig – but struggled once Los Angeles put those primary defenders in ball screen actions. Leonard would often be switched on to a big, which opened opportunities for his perimeter shot and potential to get to his favored mid-range shots better. 

Leonard will be very difficult to stop, but the Suns have to find a way to contain him and force other players to beat them. He is Los Angeles’ best and perhaps only late-game option since forward Paul George is expected to miss this series with a right knee sprain. It will be hard for Leonard to carry the Clippers through a seven-game series, so the Suns will have to do their best to wear him out. 

Slow Start 

The Suns had over a week to rest four of their starters in preparation for this game. Nonetheless, Phoenix came out flat while its fans were waiting to blow the roof off Footprint Center with excitement for the first playoff game. 

The game started with a missed corner jumper from Durant, who was held scoreless in the first quarter for just the second time in his playoff career. The Suns seemed to have good shots but could not convert, and they surprisingly fell into a double-digit deficit in the first quarter. 

Phoenix found a way to close the gap in the second with a 27-17 run to close it. It got more active on the defensive end and led in fastbreak points, 14-6, at halftime. 

But that was the Suns’ best stretch of the game, which cost them ultimately. Los Angeles took an early lead and stormed back and Phoenix did not have an answer for either run. 

Durant’s near Triple-Double

Durant is expected to give the Suns perhaps the push they need to win their first-ever championship. He had an impressive game with 27 points, 11 assists, and nine rebounds but was perhaps not utilized in a way that epitomizes his status as arguably the best player in the world. 

Durant was sent to the corner for some of the Suns’ early actions and did not score in the first quarter. He had 17 points in the second but also did not score in the third when Phoenix saw a 9-point lead trickle away. 

The Suns had a close game against the Clippers in the fourth, but they could not locate Durant in the final six minutes for more shots. He hit a fadeaway 3-pointer that cut Phoenix’s late deficit to 109-106, but that was his only shot attempt in that stretch. 

Durant will need to be more involved for the Suns to truly exploit the Clippers with their stars. 

Devin Booker’s Defense, Hustle 

Sunday’s game was arguably Booker’s best from a defensive standpoint. 

He was extremely active from a one-on-one standpoint and played great rim defense. He had four steals and three blocks, which was crucial for the Suns. 

Phoenix trailed 100-96 in the fourth quarter before Booker stole the ball from Clippers wing Terance Mann, saved it from going out of bounds, and threw it ahead to Craig for an and-1. 

It was a play that could have saved the game for the Suns. It did not turn out that way, but Booker’s efforts were very impressive.

He finished with 26 points on 10-of-19 shooting. 

The Suns Bench Greatly Outplayed 

Phoenix’s bench employed rare rotations, which in some respect is expected since it did not have backup guard Cameron Payne available and has to keep either Booker or Durant on the floor at all times. 

Still, the end result was not pretty. Five bench players were at least a minus-8 in the game. Shamet was a minus-14. 

The bench play was a differentiator. Los Angeles entered the series with the NBA’s third-best scoring bench and beat the Suns 34 to 10 in that category. It erased a net-positive performance for the Suns’ starters, as Paul, Ayton, Craig, and Durant were each at least a plus-six. Craig was plus-14 in his 27 minutes. 

Westbrook Saves The Day 

If you look at the box score, Westbrook had a horrendous game. He shot 3-of-19 from the field and had nine points but still almost had a triple-double with 11 rebounds and eight assists. 

But from the eye test, Westbrook’s impact was terrific. Five of his boards were on the offensive glass, and the one that led to Leonard’s first 3-pointer in crunch time helped the Clippers ultimately seal the win. 

Westbrook’s block on Booker put the game away for Los Angeles. He may be erratic, but he made key plays when his team needed them. 

Suns Lose Game 1 

The Suns are in a bad position in terms of history. In the 848 NBA series in which a team has lost its first game, it has gone on to win the series just 188 (22.2 percent) times. 

This is also the first time Phoenix has lost a Game 1 in the last two seasons. It is new ground for the Suns, who are in a must-win scenario for Tuesday. 

What Needs to Happen? 

The Suns were clearly outplayed by the Clippers. Los Angeles had the best player on the floor, Leonard, and dominated the bench minutes in addition to hustle stats. 

Phoenix has only played nine games for Durant, so there is still room for growth. But it must happen quickly if it is to bounce back and take this series over, which will be harder since it lost homecourt advantage. 

What do you think the Suns can do to respond in this series? Let us know @LeezusMedia.

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