Low-scoring, offensively sluggish affairs usually leave the fate of the game with the stars. That wasn’t really the case in Game 2 between the Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns.
With Devin Booker struggling offensively and dealing with a broken nose, the rest of the Suns picked up the slack to take a 104-103 win and a 2-0 series lead.
While this game was a more physical and closely fought affair, the Suns continued to survive without the services of Chris Paul. The Game 1 win was led by Booker but with all eyes and defensive schemes on him, it was Cameron Payne and DeAndre Ayton who responded to the challenge.
Payne led all scorers with 29 points and nine assists, keeping the offense afloat with Booker missing 11 of his 16 shot attempts.
He naturally took advantage of a defense heavily gravitated towards his more heralded teammate as he attacked openings and was able to get the rest of the sqaud in the game offensively.
However, it was Ayton who literally made the difference for Phoenix. The third-year center out of Arizona continues to impress in his maiden postseason as he finished Game 2 with 24 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.
His size advantage also proved crucial in keeping the Clippers at bay as his shots from low block, which included the go-ahead alley-oop that sealed the deal for Phoenix, helped prevent Los Angeles from breaking the game open.
The inside-outside impact of both Payne and Ayton showed that they can not only atone for the offensive struggles of Booker, but they can also count on the next man to answer the challenge. Booker, Paul, and at times Mikal Bridges are usually among the Suns’ main scorers, but in Game 2, it was Payne, Ayton, and even Cam Johnson, who made all his shots for 11 points.
Beyond the surface, it also gives them confidence that they can inch closer to finishing the series especially against a team that has a knack for rallying back.
The Clippers love giving their opponents head starts. Both the Dallas Mavericks and the Utah Jazz had 2-0 leads over LA, who then went 8-1 in the succeeding games combined to advance to the conference finals.
With the series shifting to Los Angeles for the next two games, it goes without saying that Tyronn Lue and the Clippers coaching staff will make some adjustments to their rotations and their schemes on both ends of the floor.
Phoenix should thus prepare for LA’s response by sticking to what works. Veering away from what was effective didn’t bode well for Clippers, who took shots away from the likes of last series’ hero Terance Mann.
Paul’s impending return and the high likelihood of Booker’s improved offensive performance will change the Suns’ approach to the next games. Having a plethora of options and an iron-clad plan could help them prepare for whatever Los Angeles has in store for them.
What led to the Mavericks’ downfall was that they had no answers for Kawhi Leonard and could not establish consistent offensive support for Luka Doncic. For the Jazz, meanwhile, having no Mike Conley for all but Game 6 of the series made it hard to bring him up to speed in order to really ease the load off Donovan Mitchell.
With the way the Suns have played in the last two games, it’s safe to say that they won’t live and die by Paul. Payne has slipped comfortably into his role and while he cannot completely replace what CP3 brings to the table, he has shown he is capable of taking advantage of what the defense gives him.
Phoenix’s rotation was shorter than that of Los Angeles’, but the former was able to get more quality out of their players than the latter. It was especially helpful in Game 2, as other Game 1 contributors like Bridges and Jae Crowder were limited to a combined seven points.
While low-scoring affairs are the product of solid defenses, they also indicate the grind of a playoff stretch that has certain players nearing the 100-game mark. Sometimes, help from other fronts will be a welcome boost especially for a team like the Phoenix Suns.
Regardless of how he performs, Devin Booker will always have a presence on the game, but when the likes of Cameron Payne and DeAndre Ayton chip in, it certainly gives a boost to a team like the title-hungry Phoenix Suns.