The ball zipped inside to Phoenix center Deandre Ayton, who quickly found a cutting Mikal Bridges for a dunk, an easy basket coming Sunday in the first half of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
Clippers assistant Kenny Atkinson, dressed in all black like the rest of the team’s staff, bounded from his seat to the back row of the Clippers’ bench area where he found a colleague with a laptop and footage of the defensive breakdown.
While the game was still happening in front of him, this play, this score, represented so much of what the Clippers must try to solve.
Can they find a way to provide enough pressure on superstar scorer Devin Booker on the perimeter while keeping Ayton from dominating in the paint and around the basket?
“That’s going to be the challenge,” a tired Paul George said after the Clippers lost 120-114.
The Clippers allowed the two players to combine for 60 points, Booker cooking the defense from the perimeter and Ayton perfectly supplementing the Suns’ guard by converting on nearly every opportunity.
Ayton beat up on the Lakers in the first round of the series in similar fashion sneaking behind the stretched out defense to convert nearly 80% of his shots. He was 10-for-14 shooting Sunday.
“Deandre Ayton is a monster,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said during the first-round series. “He’s huge and he finishes everything.”
Only Rudy Gobert has a better field-goal percentage this playoffs than Ayton, but the Clippers view the Suns’ young center as more of a threat. It’s a big concern because the team had settled into smaller lineups in the first two rounds.
“It’s different. Ayton is a little bit more agile, [has] a little bit more presence down low, better finisher than the bigs we faced,” George said. ‘So it’s going to be a challenge. That’s definitely what we’ve got to work on.”
Three years after being picked No. 1 overall ahead of players such as Trae Young and Luka Doncic, Ayton has found his place perfectly alongside Booker and Chris Paul, who did not play because of COVID protocols, by complementing their perimeter skills.
“Setting great screens, punishing mismatches and just really crashing that glass, man,” Ayton said, a credo any coach would love to hear from a starting center.
Marcus Morris, who was slowed by a knee injury, might’ve forced coach Tyron Lue’s hand a little, but it seemed like the Clippers felt they needed to be bigger to try to stop the Suns.
The team played centers Ivica Zubac or DeMarcus Cousins for 31 minutes and 18 seconds — the most court time they’ve given true big men during the postseason.
Cousins gave the Clippers a spark early, a one-handed slam over Dario Saric sort of announced his presence in the game on his way to 11 points during a first-half stretch. But when Ayton came into the game, Cousins wasn’t nearly as effective, and in his second-half minutes, the Clippers couldn’t get him going on the block.
The team was outscored by 11 points in his minutes, the attention given to Booker and the Suns’ guards the biggest culprit.
“It was a lot of situations where we over-helped, myself in particular,” Cousins said. “… They keep the floor spread. They use the pick-and-roll to suck guys in, and we just have to do a better job of being in our rotations and not over-helping and being in the correct spot. Like I said, we will adjust and plan on having a better showing.”
It’s probably the easiest area to clean up because slowing Booker might be too tough for anyone right now.
In his first postseason, he’s been one of the most complete offensive players, testing the Clippers from three like Luka Doncic and at the bucket like Donovan Mitchell with expert off-the-ball movement and a Kobe Bryant-inspired mid-range to boot.
His confidence is through the roof as he’s emerged as a full-fledged star, rolling into games behind the wheel of vintage cars and doing postgame interviews in high-top Chuck Taylor sneakers.
“He’s the complete package,” Clippers guard Reggie Jackson said. “We have to find a way to bottle him up.”
When the Clippers tried different tactics, often sending a second defender, the ball either found Ayton by the rim or an open shooter behind the three-point line.
It’s a puzzle that no one has been able to solve. But Atkinson’s rapid walk from his chair to his colleague with that laptop, you can be certain that the Clippers know the importance of being the ones to do it.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.