Unlike other Game 1’s, the first game of this year’s Western Conference Finals may not tell us all that much about the rest of the series. The Phoenix Suns beat the LA Clippers, but the result doesn’t feel decisive — at least not yet.
Chris Paul’s absence due to health and safety protocols delayed many answers to strategic questions. The gray area of Paul’s availability throws the early part of the series into mystery. There is also the matter of the Clippers, who have oddly went down 2-0 in both of their previous series, only to come back and win. Ty Lue is known to play a deep lineup in Game 1’s to see who can keep playing and who can’t. Those adjustments will come.
The biggest story from Game 1, though, revolves around Devin Booker. His 40-point triple double gives us more information about the future than perhaps anything else that happened in that game. He took on a big load with Paul out and, just as he did in the first round against the Lakers, he delivered, to the point that Stephen A. Smith declared him the next Kobe Bryant.
That may be an exaggeration, but Booker looked next-level in Game 1. As the centerpiece of Monty Williams’s whirring pick-and-roll offense, he dribbled into midrange jumpers against drop coverage and picked apart the Clippers’ defense with skip passes and lobs.
The Suns’ offense presents new challenges for the Clippers. In the first round, they faced the one-man Luka Doncic show and won thanks to offense and some cold shooting from Doncic’s teammates. In the second, LA’s small lineup of mobile, switchable wings caused problems for the Jazz, bogging down an offense that thrived on spacing and three-point shots. Donovan Mitchell was astounding, but the Clippers found success with varied traps and sharp close-outs.
It will be different against Booker’s Suns. And just wait until Paul comes back. Phoenix’s offense has more answers than the Mavs or Jazz did, with a strong collection of role players who can move the ball and shoot at will. Booker is in his sweet spot as the main guy in this offense. He passed calmly out of the Clippers’ traps, hitting teammates who made plays on the move. He operated out of the pick-and-roll at a high speed, finding the right shot every time. His pull-up shooting is deadly — difficult to bet against.
Phoenix makes defenders run through difficult screens, often multiple in a row, in order to force rotations. Screeners set up high on the perimeter or at the elbows, putting defenders in tough spots. Even when they fight through screens, the Suns are built to probe weaknesses:
Those two initial screens served to get Booker dribbling downhill while also taking his primary defender (Patrick Beverley) out of the play. Here, though, Marcus Morris fights through Deandre Ayton, getting close enough to Booker to deter a pull-up jumper. Ivica Zubac barricades the rim and Ayton rolls to the hoop, but Zubac covers a lot of airspace and, crucially, Reggie Jackson rotates out of the corner.
Impressively, however, Booker rises toward Zubac with the full intent of lofting a pass to the corner, hitting a wide open E’Twaun Moore. The shot misses, but Booker tormented the Clippers on these types of pick-and-rolls all day. He went on a run late in the third quarter in which he hit numerous pull-up jumpers against drop coverage just like Paul did late in the previous series against Denver. His passing, too, was on point:
Ayton is a weapon for the Suns. He finished with 20 points on 10-of-14 shooting, taking advantage of the Clippers’ small lineups with post-up seals, offensive rebounds, and strong finishes around the hoop. Just as Gobert struggled to do anything with the ball in his hands, he let LA off the hook for playing 6’8” Nicolas Batum at center, Ayton has made Lue think very hard about putting Zubac or DeMarcus Cousins on the court more often.
Williams has a lot of ideas, and a lot of counters to a Clippers’ defense missing Kawhi Leonard. Watch this play, in which Booker sets a screen that springs a lob for Ayton:
Or this, in which an out-of-timeout play springs Cameron Payne on a drive against Morris, taking advantage of the Clippers’ lack of rim protection:
This sort of creativity elevates the offense and gets looks for every player. Williams builds on sets and changes them throughout games to throw defenses off.
The Suns’ pick-and-roll offense lends itself to attacking mismatches, a must in the playoffs. It can put anyone in an action at any time, leading to Luke Kennard, Rajon Rondo, and Cousins frequently getting cooked in Game 1. It also provides a certain structure, a fallback for when the offense slows down. Paul deserves a lot of credit for the way he has run this offense all season, but Game 1 was definitive proof that the system endures beyond Paul.
Booker is a big reason for that. He’s the guy the Clippers have to scheme against. That will mean putting Paul George on him for longer stretches, although George’s offensive load is heavy. Lue will have to be diligent about sitting liabilities, like Rondo, who has been hit or miss and was a big miss in Game 1.
Traps didn’t seem to work much (I’d like to see the numbers on that), but they are crucial to stopping an alpha scorer and playmaker like Booker. Deploying them randomly, and in different spots on the floor, could force Booker to show some imperfections.
Lue might also simply rely on Booker to miss a few more shots. A lot of the time, the best way to defend him is to trust his defender to bother him from behind as much as possible on those jump shots. The Clippers have the personnel for it. Zubac can be an effective deterrent as well. He will get blown by sometimes, but he will get stops at the hoop and won’t let Ayton score easy buckets.
The Suns will get a whole lot harder to stop when Paul comes back. Williams will have even more pick-and-roll combinations and variations to play with. The Clippers, playing without Leonard, will come up with more answers.