PHOENIX — The Suns have waited 28 years since their last NBA Finals berth, and now they’ll have to wait two more days — at least.
Phoenix was thoroughly outplayed in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Monday, losing to the LA Clippers 116-102 to cut the Suns’ series lead to 3-2.
In a game that felt like a complete reversal from Game 4 — when the Suns went into Staples Center, jumped out to an early lead and never trailed — Phoenix found itself playing from behind virtually all night. The Clippers jumped out to a 20-5 advantage in the first five minutes, as Marcus Morris Sr. couldn’t miss, starting things off 6-for-6 from the field.
“It’s just unacceptable the way we started the game,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It was a big hole for us. It’s pretty obvious that we can’t play with a show-up mentality. We showed up in the first quarter, and they played with desperation — simple and plain.”
Led by Devin Booker (31 points) and Chris Paul (22 points and eight assists), the Suns surged back on several occasions but never could take control. They cut the deficit to four points in the first quarter and to two points in the second quarter, before briefly taking the lead at 62-61 on a Paul jumper with 8:27 remaining in the third quarter. Phoenix again got as close as four points with 6:58 remaining in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve got to close quarters better,” Paul said. “Like that’s been a problem for us all series long. Closing quarters, that last 2½, three minutes of quarters. We took the lead and then maybe cut it to one or two, and then they get a bucket and go on a run.”
Indeed, the Clippers finished the third quarter on a 30-16 push after the Suns held their only lead of the game for an all-too-brief 20 seconds. And then in the fourth, after Torrey Craig missed a free throw that could have cut the Suns’ deficit to three points with just less than seven minutes left, the Clips reeled off a 10-2 flurry to build the lead back to a dozen points.
“It’s on all of us,” Booker said. “They came out, they punched us in the face to start the game. And I think we showed it at spots tonight and certain times, but they’re not going to go away easily, so we have to be locked in from beginning to end.”
Suns reserve Cameron Johnson, who saw his best game of the series go for naught as he chipped in 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting off the bench, was asked how Phoenix was processing the missed opportunity.
“Well, it’s the realization that it’s not going to be easy,” he replied. “That’s what the playoffs is about, and it’s tough and that’s what everybody said it would be and you can’t expect a team to just roll over. They brought it today, and they gave us a tough time. So, we just have to bring it next game.”
After outscoring the Clippers by 58 points in the paint through the first four games of the series, the Suns were the ones dominated near the basket on Monday. Phoenix was outscored 58-32 in the paint for the night, even though LA was without starting center Ivica Zubac, sidelined with a sprained right MCL.
“That’s not something you would have expected, especially with them not having Zubac tonight,” Williams said. “So, we will be better in the next game.
“Paramount on my mind right now is we got to play with way more force and competitive edge, and we’ve got to guard the ball.”
The Clippers shot 54.8% as a team, led by Paul George, who scored a playoff career-high 41 points on 15-for-20 shooting.
“He got it going,” Paul said. “He was getting to his spots, making shots. … We got to make it tougher on him.”
Some of those defensive woes could be attributed to Booker. The Clippers went 10-of-14 on possessions when Booker was the primary defender, scoring 23 points, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. The 10 field goals were the most he has let up in a game these playoffs.
“I think we’ll be ready to go for Game 6,” Booker said, looking ahead to Wednesday’s Game 6. “That’s a tough loss for us at home, with a chance to clinch to go to the NBA Finals, so we’re going to be ready.”
Williams said the Suns have to summon the same type of spirit that carried the Clippers in Game 5 when Phoenix gets a second chance to close things out in two days.
“The desperation has to be there. That’s the deal,” the coach said. “Just because you have a lead in the series doesn’t mean you can show up and they’re going to give it to you. We have to understand that, and I think we do now. We will be better when we show up the next time we play.”
Williams was asked how he can make sure his group can tap into that desperation the next time it takes the court.
“Getting your butt kicked like that should turn it on,” he said.