PHOENIX — “What we do,” Monty Williams said Tuesday, “is hard.
The Phoenix Suns coach was answering a question before Game 2 of the Western Conference finals specifically about the torrent of criticism that has been leveled at Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons after the top-seeded 76ers’ second-round playoff exit. But Williams’ point was broader.
Competing in the NBA might be lucrative, but it isn’t easy.
It isn’t supposed to be. In your second year on the job, you can be assigned to stop from the most elite scorers in the world. And to do it with a franchise’s postseason fate on the line.
So far during this postseason, Clippers wing Terance Mann has had a hand in guarding All-Stars Luka Doncic in the first round, Donovan Mitchell in the second and now, in the conference finals, Devin Booker.
And, no, Mann didn’t stop Booker in the Clippers’ 120-114 Game 1 loss in Phoenix. In the 5 minutes, 2 seconds when Mann marked Booker, the shooting guard scored 16 of his 40 points on 7-for-11 shooting, according to NBA.com/stats.
But Booker is a two-time All-Star, of course he presents a challenge.
The thing is, Mann “loves a challenge,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said.
“Every series, from guarding Luka to guarding Donovan to guarding Devin, it’s a lot of great experience guarding three big players in our league today,” Lue continued. “So for only being a second-year player, he’s been through a lot this last season and he’s getting better and better every night, defensively, offensively, his shooting.
“So I’m just looking forward to him continuing to keep getting better.”
Mann proved unstoppable himself in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, when he erupted for a career-high 39 points to push the Clippers past top-seeded Utah and into their first conference finals appearance.
And it isn’t as though the 24-year-old from Massachusetts has not had practice with – scoring and defending – top-flight talent. Actual practice, in fact, where for the past two seasons, he’s faced off with the Clippers’ All-NBA stars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
After Game 6 on Friday night, George talked about what he learned about Mann during his training sessions going against him early in both of their tenures as Clippers.
“I got a chance to see him up close, when I was hurt with the shoulders,” George said. “T-Mann was like my sparring partner. So we used to go at it. I seen the flashes from way on in the beginning. And you know, his tenacity was what I needed to get me back playing at an elite level.
“But going against him was fun. We challenged each other. I hope I was able to pass some things off to him. But you know, we grew a really good relationship, the very second I got here, like I said, because I was rehabbing and he was one of the guys that was preparing me and getting me ready to come back.”
BEFORE CHRIS PAUL
Lue said before Tuesday’s game he really wanted to avoid falling behind 2-0 again, on principle and because he recognizes that the Suns will get even tougher when All-NBA point guard Chris Paul emerges from COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
“We want to get one for sure,” Lue said. “That’s our mindset coming into tonight. Guys are rested and feeling good. With CP out, this would be a great one to get, not knowing the timetable of when he’s coming back, when he’s going to be back playing.
“So we have our mindset on that; we want to go into this game with the mindset of we are coming to win one tonight.”
And when Paul can return, expect he’ll be thrown right back into the action without much easing in, Williams said.
“We don’t have the luxury of waiting on anybody right now,” the Suns’ coach said before tip-off. “We certainly will see where he’s at when the time comes, but that’s hard to make that judgment just because COVID is so different. It’s COVID and the playoffs. It’s not COVID in the regular season.”
Besides, Williams noted, the former Clippers star wouldn’t have patience for any such suggestion anyway.
“I’m sure if I tried to keep Chris out of the game, he’d want to square off and go toe-to-toe. So we’ll just make that assessment when the time comes.”
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