Phoenix Suns head to All-Star break after loss to upset Clippers

PHOENIX — One of the defining traits of the Phoenix Suns in the Monty Williams era is their attrition effect. When they go into highly competitive games, sometime in the second half, the opposition folds. The Suns had worn them down.

But as we learned in the 2021 Western Conference Finals, the Los Angeles Clippers are pretty much immune. Their stubbornness and ability to make timely shots kept them in front for most of Thursday night and were responsible for the Suns’ 116-107 loss.

The Suns weren’t great in this game, but they’ve had nights like this where it was enough to win a game. The Clippers weren’t having it.

Every time Phoenix ran a bit or got the crowd involved, Los Angeles responded. This cycle persisted throughout the game, and eventually, Phoenix ran out of time.

After a Mason Plumlee touchdown for the Clippers put them up nine with 10:46 remaining, every possession scored the Suns, LA did the same on four straight possessions.

A 14-footer from Devin Booker with 4:51 remaining was the first time in the quarter that Phoenix had a “run” and the 5-0 mark ended with baskets to Paul George and Terance Mann.

Booker scored the next two baskets for the Suns, but guess what, each one was followed by one for the Clippers. By then, there were less than two minutes left on the clock and the Clippers were up eight.

Before that, the Suns had scored 32 points in the third quarter. The problem is that they gave up 37.

The Clippers once again showed why they are the best team defending Booker. Either with cheats or fast doubles, they were able to successfully take the ball out of his hands, and the Suns did not take advantage of it enough.

“Usually for us, when the double or the trade happens, that first blackout, we attack,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “And tonight he passed out for the first time and stayed a little bit.”

There were a handful of possessions as Booker escaped action with a 1-on-1 matchup, but as soon as he began to think about going downhill, a second Clipper immediately closed in on him and forced Booker to make the right play. And when Booker found some space, he was guarded by guys like world defender George or another very good perimeter defender.

“I’ve got to see the movie, but I don’t think we were that good at responding to cheating tonight,” Williams said. “Get the ball out fast and then have guys in the right place.”

To the point of Williams, it was the first game in which I myself really noticed the absence of Mikal Bridges. Whether it was running to the foul line to shoot the snap or making the snap play on the catch Williams mentioned, Bridges was excellent at making the right play on Booker’s doubles. The other boys will have to find out.

This is something an opposing defense won’t get away with once Kevin Durant enters the fray. Maybe they can from time to time. The whole game though? nuh-uh.

There’s a delicate balance between picking your points that Booker almost masters with how attuned he is to the pace of a game. However, for whatever reason, the Clippers write him off. He wasn’t able to find those areas when he had space.

Booker finished 6 of 16 from the field for 19 points with nine assists and five turnovers.

While Josh Okogie (24 points) and Terrence Ross (16) had great nights, Phoenix didn’t get enough from Deandre Ayton (18), Chris Paul (5) and others to make up for a more-or-less defensive night.

Okogie was terrific for the fourth straight game. He hit a career-high six 3-pointers from him, and it’s going to be awfully hard to get him out of the starting lineup.

“Unbelievable, man,” Booker said of Okogie’s work. “Just taking a big step forward. Teams are trying to force the ball on him (and) he’s making them pay every time.”

In his debut, Ross showed Suns fans what it’s all about, flying around the off-the-ball move to receive the ball on the move and stopping in his midrange game. On a roster that has some guys who will overthink when they have a little space to shoot, Ross never hesitates, even when the defender is close. This team desperately needed someone with that ability off the bench and he’s going to fill that void perfectly.

“He’s doing what we want him to do,” Williams said of Ross. “He is aggressive to score, he is solid on defense. … Offensively, we feel like he’s going to be a guy who can come off the bench and give us timely scores.”

Ross attempted 17 shots in 25 minutes, hitting seven.

Ayton’s scoring production was there, but the Clippers’ Ivica Zubac outplayed him for most of the night, a matchup Ayton normally does very well with. Zubac had six of his 12 rebounds on the offensive glass while Ayton only grabbed six total.

Paul shot 2-of-8. While Durant’s implementation will ease Paul’s scoring load, the Suns will still require him to score and he can still hurt them when he has nights like this, even with Booker and Durant. Paul added 11 assists and four steals.

Mann went 10 of 12 for 26 points and George matched that point total as well. They were the two best players on the court.

The Suns now head into the All-Star break, with six days off until they return to practice Thursday.

But if you think that means they’ll be “off” then you don’t really know this group.

Booker said his plan right now is to stay in the Valley, and when asked if he’d be in town early to make sure he gets to work more with someone special (Durant), he sounded like that was on the cards.

“Yes. The work does not stop,” he said.

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