Once Again, Clippers’ Fortunes Rest on Stopping Young & Hungry NBA Star

Devin Booker

Getty Booker floats in on the Clippers

Los Angeles Clippers fans better hope Ty Lue doesn’t grow tired of solving riddles, because it seems the coach has another one on his hands.

On Sunday, in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker had 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists for his first career triple-double and became just the ninth player in NBA history to post a 40-point triple-double in the playoffs, joining the likes of LeBron James (three times), Oscar Robertson (twice) and a handful of other guys either in or destined to be in the Hall of Fame.

Now, there are any number of ways to describe and highlight Bookers’ historic performance in Game 1, a 120-114 Suns victory, but to Lue and the Clippers it means just one thing:

For the third straight playoff series, they will need to figure out a way to defuse a talented and intensely confident young superstar.

The Three (Incredibly Skilled) Amigos

In the first round, it was Dallas’ Luka Doncic, the relatively plodding 6-foot-7 point guard whose range is better measured in miles not feet, and whose ability to control a game’s pace is well beyond his 22 years. Then there was Utah’s explosive shooting guard Donovan Mitchell, a threat from long-distance similar to Doncic but also with the speed and quickness to blow past most players one-on-one.

In both cases, against Doncic and the Mavericks, Mitchell and the Jazz, the Clippers lost the first two games of the series but eventually benefitted from the fact that neither team is much of a threat offensively down low. The Clippers could therefore utilize a small-ball lineup that allowed them to switch most everything and double Doncic and Mitchell high on the perimeter, forcing lesser players to make shots and keeping either team from running sets with the sole purpose of exploiting the Clippers big men.

Of course, given their range and skill, Doncic and Mitchell still got their points (35.7 and 34.8, respectively) and when the role players shot well the Clippers lost. But the strategy worked more than it didn’t in both series, and Mitchell, in particular, had trouble with the pressure — in large part due to the absence of injured All-Star point guard Mike Conley, who finally saw action in Game 6 but was a shell of his usual self.

The Suns are also without their point guard, 11-time All-Star Chris Paul — currently in the league’s COVID-19 protocol — which is likely why Lue decided to go with a similar pressure campaign against Booker in Game 1. But unlike Dallas and Utah, the Suns do have an offensive-minded big man, Deandre Ayton, meaning the Clippers were forced to play centers Ivica Zubac and DeMarcus Cousins more than in the previous two series.

So when the Suns went away from Paul’s backup, Cameron Payne, to start the second half, opting instead to have Booker bring up the ball and then freeing him from coverage via high screens, the 6-foot-5 guard had plenty of space to maneuver against the Clippers dropping bigs. Sometimes he dished and sometimes he pulled up for a mid-range jumper, a shot he takes far more often and better than Doncic or Mitchell. (In the regular season, Booker took 37% of his shots between 10 feet and the 3-point line, while Doncic and Mitchell took 21.3% and 20.1% from that range.)

“Picking Devin Booker up too high up the floor gave him too much real estate to attack downhill,” said Lue on Monday after watching the game film. “I understand our guards tried to get to him and apply some pressure, but they were setting screens out toward half court, which puts our bigs in a tough situation when he’s coming downhill at you full speed. We have to do a better job at our pickup point.”

Booker Did His Homework

Though even when the Clippers went back to their small-ball lineup to finish out the game, Booker had success, no doubt helped by the fact that he knew how the Clippers defended Doncic and Mitchell.

“I watched all their games versus Utah and Dallas, and I watched how they guarded Luka and Donovan, so we had a pretty good idea of what they were going to throw at us and continue to throw at us,” Booker said after the game. “With a small ball lineup, they’re going to switch a lot of actions and they’re going to run and hit and double that.”

“Devin Booker did a great job of knowing what play he wanted to make when we fired at him to try to double-team,” said Lue. “When we blitzed the pick-and-roll, they knew exactly where their guys wanted to be, and they put us in some tough positions. They did a good job of executing their game plan offensively.

“We have to be more heels to the three, try to shrink the floor as much as possible, and that gives our bigs a chance to set up and make a play in close quarters.”

Of course, any strategy Lue comes up with to slow Booker will be subject to change when Chris Paul returns to action. The former Clipper has been a driving force behind the Suns’ success this season, and surely he will be in control of the offense more often than not, driving and dishing and allowing Booker to return to his usual shooting guard role.

But that’s a riddle Lue will just have to wait to solve.