Having suffered their first loss since May 27 in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, the Phoenix Suns gathered at the team hotel Friday afternoon and walked over to STAPLES Center for a light workout ahead of Game 4.
The last time the Suns lost a playoff game in Los Angeles, they responded with a franchise-record nine-game playoff winning streak that eventually led to a 2-0 lead over the LA Clippers.
"That was my first time experiencing it," Phoenix guard Devin Booker said. "After we won one versus the Lakers and lost two, we're down 2-1 in L.A. You come in the gym, and everyone is laughing and having a good time, but focused. There's an understanding around the team what our next objective is. So, it's not really talked about that much. You just feel it in the energy, even when you're laughing, having a good time out there. Everybody is zeroed in and locked in."
That's a byproduct of the lessons taught, and culture brought to Phoenix by second-year head coach Monty Williams.
"Just our culture, just how we are every day," Suns wing Mikal Bridges said. "When we lose, we don't put our heads down. We just know what we have to do to be better."
Credit the Clippers for teaching some of that.
As Game 4 approaches on Sunday (IST) at STAPLES Center, LA continues to school the young Suns on the intensity and physicality required to excel in the postseason. The harshest lesson came Thursday in LA's 106-92 victory that moved the Clippers to within a game of tying up this best-of-seven series.
There's no secret to the Clippers' resiliency: Tyronn Lue knows how to get the most out of his players.
Williams admitted Phoenix anticipated the intensity the Clippers would bring into Game 3. Even so, the Suns failed to match it as Pat Beverley relentlessly hounded Booker all night, while Chris Paul struggled in his first game back coming off an 11-day absence.
Booker and Paul combined to shoot 10-for-40 while committing a combined six of Phoenix's 11 turnovers on the night. The Suns shot 38.9% from the field against the Clippers - which registers as their worst shooting performance of the playoffs - while connecting on just 31% from deep. Phoenix has shot 28% from 3-point range over its last two outings, while Booker has committed 11 turnovers in his last two games.
"I think we need to be kind of wild at some point, just go hard," said forward Dario Saric said. "Obviously, we watch[ed] the video today from our last game at home, and the video from yesterday. We were kind of giving them space for them to operate. I think for next game, I think we need to be kind of close to them, breathing on the neck, let's say, like [a] dog and try to play hard and try to play fast because I think they were struggling against us when we play fast.
"In the playoffs the physicality goes up. It's a different game. You can play more tough, more physically than during the regular season. You know every possession matters. Every ball somebody shoots, even offensive rebound[s] matter, like everything matters twice as much in my opinion. That's why we are here because we are doing those things all the time. We have the opportunity to play physically on both sides of the court. That's what we want. I think our last game, we were kind of so-so on that part. I think we can do that better for our next game."
Williams and Saric believe one way for Phoenix to combat LA's physicality is to play with increased pace on offense.
"We should play our style of basketball," Saric said. "Play fast and be dangerous on every position on the court and have five guys able to score in every moment of the offense. I think we were more static, especially on their switches. I think we didn't attack immediately. We gave them chances to set up the shifts again in a defense and I think that was a crucial thing. I think if we play faster, I think for them it's kind of hard to follow us, and I think that's the recipe for next game."
Paul played nearly 40 minutes in his first game back off an 11-day absence, and Williams said he left the veteran on the floor too long, in part because of the ankle injury suffered by reserve guard Cameron Payne in the first half. The injury threw off Phoenix's rotation somewhat, and let's not forget how Payne's quickness on drives to the basket hurt LA over the first two games of the series.
Williams walked behind Payne on Friday as the team headed to STAPLES Center from the hotel and said he "felt so grateful that he was just walking the way that he was to the gym," adding the team is "hopeful we'll get a good report going forward and he can be ready to play tomorrow."
Defensively, Williams considered Phoenix's intensity and physicality for Game 4 "solid," but not consistently at the level required to defeat the scrappy Clippers. Besides, the Suns relish the opportunities to play in transition, which in turn creates space for their scorers.
Most importantly, Williams wants his young Suns to forget about a Game 3 result they can't change.
It's time to focus on Game 4.
"Your human nature is to allow it to bum you out a little bit," Williams said. "You go home, your food tastes different, your sleep is different. But we have to turn the page. That's the one thing we tried to do with our young guys is to teach them how to learn from the win or the loss. At the same time, approach the next thing in a fashion that would allow you to be productive, whether it's film or practice, whatever it is. We know we have to play much better and that was a part of our day today, as well."
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