The Phoenix Suns burned the LA Clippers 136-130 in Game 5 to earn a 4-1 series victory. The Suns outscored the Clippers by 26 points in the third quarter but still struggled to survive a late onslaught. Nonetheless, Phoenix will advance to the second round to face the Denver Nuggets.
The Clippers fought valiantly without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, but they couldn’t overcome the massive talent gap without Leonard. How do the Suns match up against the Nuggets? And what’s in store for the Clippers during another long offseason?
Suns-Clippers Game 5: Devin Booker Sinks the Clippers
Suns-Clippers: Game 5 First Half
This has been a closely-contested series even without Leonard, and Game 5 continued in the same vein. Devin Booker was the Suns’ point guard even when Chris Paul was in the game. Booker ran Phoenix’s offense to perfection, as every Phoenix starter besides Torrey Craig scored in the first six minutes. An explosive Norman Powell (11 points in the quarter) combined with the beastly Ivica Zubac (8 points) to keep LA competitive. The Suns held a scant 32-30 lead at the end of one.
The game stayed close in the second quarter as the Clippers continued to fight for their postseason lives. Deandre Ayton took advantage of the defensive attention garnered by his teammates and scored 9 in the quarter (18 for the half). Neither team could stop the other, but LA proved to have the more unstoppable offense. The Clippers earned seven more shot attempts (and six more free throws) than the Suns by grabbing ten offensive boards to Phoenix’s 14 defensive rebounds. They led 70-61 at halftime after putting up a 40-point second quarter.
Count 'em up Stormin' ⛈️ pic.twitter.com/oIqSMecem9
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) April 26, 2023
Suns-Clippers: Game 5 Second Half
The Suns shone in the third quarter. Booker and Durant led the Suns with incredible shotmaking, and Phoenix hurt the Clippers in the half-court and transition. The Clippers’ answer was to get Durant switched onto Zubac to guard his post-ups, which wasn’t an answer to Phoenix’s dynamism. LA scored just seven points over a seven-minute stretch in the third, and they were helpless to stop the Suns’ avalanche. Phoenix turned the nine-point halftime deficit into a 17-point lead (111-94) heading into the fourth. Booker had 41 points on 17-23 shooting (!?) through three quarters.
BOOK GOES BACK-TO-BACK 🔥
19 PTS IN THE QUARTER. 35 PTS ON THE NIGHT.
📺: TNT | Game 5 | PHX Leads 3-1 pic.twitter.com/XiNmxmRyDK
— NBA (@NBA) April 26, 2023
The Clippers were able to regroup somewhat after Phoenix’s 50-point third quarter. Surprisingly, Mason Plumlee led a scoring run to start the fourth as the Clippers cut the Phoenix lead to 10 after a Russell Westbrook layup with 6:36 left. A Booker three and Ayton dunk quelled that run, but the Clippers refused to quit and cut the lead to six with 3:53 left.
Clippers have cut the lead to 6 on TNT 🍿
— NBA (@NBA) April 26, 2023
A Batum three cut the lead to three after a Phoenix timeout, but Booker and Durant combined for seven late points to seal the win. Booker finished with 47 as Phoenix held on for the series-clincher.
What’s Next for the Suns
The Nuggets ended their series against the Minnesota Timberwolves victorious, while Phoenix and LA battled. Phoenix lost two games to Denver without Durant and beat them with Durant twice, but the only Denver starter to play in either game was Aaron Gordon.
Phoenix holds a number of theoretical advantages. Booker, Durant, and Paul can abuse Denver’s drop coverage by pulling up from midrange anytime Nikola Jokić plays. Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are good options to guard Booker and Paul, and Gordon will make Durant work, but Denver will have weaker defenders to attack at all times.
Defensively, Ayton surely will not stop Jokić, but Monty Williams can at least try to have Ayton defend him one-on-one. Durant can play a roving help defender role by sagging off of Gordon. The main concern for Phoenix might be Jamal Murray. He matched his pre-injury statistical output this season, and he’s certainly capable of scoring outbursts in the playoffs. The Suns don’t have anyone who can defend scoring guards well that can consistently be a threat on offense.
This series may come down to Craig and Josh Okogie. Phoenix will need those two to survive defensively against Murray and Michael Porter Jr., but they’ll need to hit open threes. Paul can be a reluctant three-point shooter, and Ayton doesn’t take them. If one of Craig or Okogie can’t hit threes, the Nuggets will be able to help relentlessly on Booker and Durant. Craig made 10-18 from three in the LA series but didn’t make one in Game 4 or 5. He played only 17 minutes in this game. Okogie played well during his 33 minutes in Game 5 but made only one three during the first four games.
What’s Next for the Clippers
Leonard and Paul George have been teammates for four seasons and have delivered more questions than answers regarding their ability to be the best two players on a championship-winning team. They’ve been trending downward after making the conference finals, with a play-in loss last year before this first-round exit. Both Leonard and George can opt out of their contracts after the 2023-24 season as well. Next season could be their last, best chance to win together. Leonard and George will turn 32 in June and 33 in May, respectively.
The Clippers’ front office has no choice but to try reinforcing the supporting cast around Leonard and George. But, they have few avenues available. They will almost assuredly pick up the nearly $21 million non-guaranteed season on Eric Gordon’s contract. LA’s cap situation means they’d have no way to replace him if they decline the option. Gordon and Marcus Morris are candidates for trades since they’re both on expiring contracts worth enough to get a player making around $20 million in return. They’re both declining players, and the Clippers would need to attach their 2028 or 2029 first-round pick to get a valuable player in return. Those are the only first-round picks available to trade after the trade for George.
This is a creative and active front office that will almost certainly make a trade between now and the 2024 trade deadline. Could the Clippers pry away Dorian Finney-Smith if the Brooklyn Nets struggle next season? Perhaps the Detroit Pistons are willing to trade Bojan Bogdanovic this off-season? Either CJ McCollum or Jordan Clarkson could be an intriguing point guard option. The specific move is hard to identify, but a deal will happen.
The Last Word
Tyronn Lue: "The encouraging thing for me is with PG and Kawhi healthy, we haven't lost a series."
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) April 26, 2023