The Suns dispatched the Clippers by responding to a smart batch of adjustments from Tyronn Lue, and will carry their momentum into the NBA Finals.
This week on The Long Two, a look at how Monty Williams and the Phoenix Suns won the chess match in the Western Conference Finals, and some positive signs from Cam Reddish as the depth of the Atlanta Hawks is tested.
The Suns and Clippers, trading counters
Making adjustments in a playoff series often requires coaches to make painstaking decisions, caught between several imperfect options or unsure of how best to exploit certain advantages. Other times, they have their decisions made for him, as was the case for Tyronn Lue in the final two games of the Western Conference Finals.
After Ivica Zubac was ruled out with a sprained MCL, the Clippers had no choice but to downsize in Game 5, which forced them to rely on what helped them overcome 2-0 deficits against the Mavericks and Jazz in the previous two rounds: fast, versatile lineups without a traditional big man. Lue turned to a three-guard lineup with Paul George and Marcus Morris as its nominal big men, a look the Clippers have tried and shelved at various points throughout the playoffs, and the benefits of which helped L.A. stave off elimination in Game 5.
The shift not only gave Paul George and Reggie Jackson more room to operate on offense, but helped disrupt Phoenix’s flow and caused a usually dynamic offense to stall. With Zubac healthy early in the series (and Chris Paul in the NBA’s health and safety protocols), the Clippers showed Devin Booker a heavy diet of drop coverage in the pick-and-roll, which he effortlessly dismantled with a barrage of pull-up jumpers. Booker could turn the corner and get into the paint at will, which not only gave him access to his preferred spots on the floor, but opened up opportunities for Deandre Ayton, Cameron Payne and Phoenix’s other role players.
But in the middle of the series, the Suns’ offense turned more star-centric against a more active defense. L.A. used both switching and zone to swarm Booker and Paul on drives and prevent them from gaining the initial bit of separation required to force a defense into rotation. Phoenix threw roughly 20 fewer passes per game in Games 4 and 5 than it did in the first three, and scored more than 10 fewer assisted points per game in that span. With less ball and player movement, the Suns couldn’t create the same shot quality, turning instead to Paul and Booker in more difficult spots. The Clippers compensated for their lack of size with energetic gang rebounding, and put Ayton in uncomfortable spots tracking shooters on the perimeter. Rather than matching the size of Phoenix’s starters, Lue used DeMarcus Cousins to offset the Suns’ smaller second unit, which both mitigated the lumbering center’s defensive issues and provided a matchup advantage that suits his physical offensive style.
In the end, however, not having Zubac available as a bench option probably cost the Clippers in Game 6, even if starting small in his absence gave them a real boost. The Suns figured out exactly where L.A.’s vulnerabilities were and targeted them with more pace, rhythm and assurance than they had in Game 5. A healthier Paul was more assertive in pick-and-rolls while Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder found a collective rhythm for the first time all series. Ayton imposed his size more effectively against mismatches, either sealing his man deep in the paint or carving out opportunities on the offensive glass, and L.A.’s absence of rim protection allowed Phoenix — one of the most rim-averse teams in the NBA — to shoot uncontested layups. And, frankly, Paul converted the shots he failed to in Game 5 while Paul George’s legs finally gave way under a superhuman workload throughout the postseason.
Credit George, Lue and the shorthanded Clippers for making a series out of what could have been a rout, and the Suns for finding ways to counter and regain the upper hand. Phoenix deserves this — its first Finals appearance since 1993 — having played a season of gorgeous, cohesive basketball that at once made space for a young star’s ascent, a Hall-of-Famer’s demanding approach and a deep ensemble’s full integration. Booker opened the series with the best playoff game of his life, Paul’s masterpiece closed it out, yet it was the sum of the team’s parts that got the Suns here. They won with competence at every rank of the organization, culminating in a stroke of brilliance from the player who pushed them over the top.
Cam Reddish, providing a lift
Any team losing a player of Trae Young’s skill and primacy must not only fill a major hole in its rotation but fundamentally change the way it runs offense. No single player on Atlanta’s roster (and only few in the entire league) can replace the dynamism and creativity Young brings to the offense, so absent one of the most heliocentric offensive players in the NBA, Atlanta summoned the power of the collective to even its series against Milwaukee at 2-2.
Notable among the ensemble was second-year wing Cam Reddish, who after playing just 17 minutes since Feb. 21 (all in Milwaukee’s blowout Game 2 win), replaced the struggling Solomon Hill as the lone wing off Atlanta’s bench. Reddish wasn’t the sole driver of Atlanta’s success, nor even the principal catalyst, but in proving himself capable on both ends of the floor on this kind of a stage, he has given McMillan a viable option at a key position on a thinning bench.
Inserting Reddish was a slight gamble given how long he’d gone without seeing real action, but he paid off wonderfully with 12 points, five rebounds and a pair of assists in 23 minutes — all while blanketing his assignment (often Khris Middleton) on the other end of the floor. The state of the Hawks’ perimeter defense without De’Andre Hunter (who will miss what remains of Atlanta’s playoff recovering from surgery on his meniscus) is truly concerning, and the cracks Hunter’s absence created were laid bare in Games 2 and 3 of this series as Kevin Huerter and Bogdan Bogdanovic (also dealing with a barking knee) were helpless to contain Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Reddish can only plug one of those gaps at a time, but he does so at a far higher level than anyone else the Hawks currently have available and alleviates much of the defensive strain on Atlanta’s guards.
Any offensive lift Reddish provides from this point will be gravy, and likely more than what the current version of Hill offers. He poses at least some threat from beyond the arc and off the dribble, and his Game 4 performance put more cumulative strain on Milwaukee’s defense than Hill or Tony Snell had all series. Tuesday night could very well be a high-water mark for Reddish in these playoffs, but it was nonetheless an encouraging glimpse at what he can bring to an ailing team and a deserved moment in the sun for a player more than four months removed from his last taste of competitive basketball.