2023 Playoffs: West First Round | Suns (4) vs. Clippers (5)

5 takeaways from Suns' Game 4 victory over Clippers

Kevin Durant (31 points) and Devin Booker (30) nullify Russell Westbrook's 37-point outburst in Kawhi Leonard's absence as Phoenix goes up 3-1 in the series.

Kevin Durant scores 31 points and Devin Booker adds 30 for a total of 61 in Phoenix's Game 4 victory.

LOS ANGELES — This series is like the poor motorist on the 405 Freeway who heard a pop. Yes, flat tire. Yes, deflating. It’s 3-1, advantage Suns over the Clippers in the Western Conference matchup that initially was supposed to headline the NBA’s first round.

Instead, with the series now missing two stars — LA’s Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, with no clear indication of ever seeing either of them again — this feels like Saran. A wrap.

Meanwhile, the Suns still have a pair of their own stars, and Kevin Durant and Devin Booker are owning the series. Once again, this All-Star tag team left the Clippers grasping for answers along with their breath Saturday, with the Suns poised for the closeout as the series shifts to Phoenix for Tuesday’s Game 5.

It was Suns 112, Clippers 100 in Game 4, and while the home team put up a fight led by a rejuvenated Russell Westbrook, the outcome was never really in doubt. So there is where we are. The Clippers are forced to elevate the roles of support players who are predictably and understandably unprepared to replace PG and Kawhi, while the Suns are being carried by players who are used to such freight.

Here are five takeaways from Game 4 and where the series stands.

1. No rest for the restless

Wow, these Durant numbers are mighty impressive. No, not the scoring figures, although his 31 points led the Suns in Game 4 and his 27.8 average for the series is par for him. Instead, it’s his minutes: KD is averaging 44 a night for the series and has yet to reach for the oxygen mask. That’s heavy time for anyone, much less a player who dealt with knee and ankle issues this season and played only 47 games with the Nets and Suns.

But if nothing else, Durant is clearly restless, and it shows. He’s aggressive from the opening tip and has had plenty of fuel for fourth quarters. “I missed a lot of time this season so I want to be out there every minute,” Durant said after his 45 minutes on Saturday. “I wish I could’ve played 48.”

Well, the other reason for the heavy minutes is the Suns’ bench isn’t the deepest. And this is probably how it’ll be for KD as well as Devin Booker (who has played 43, 45, 44 and 41 minutes) from here out. And by the way, both scorers continue to work so well together, without even a hint of poor chemistry.

Oh, and another reason for Durant’s determination? He has won just one playoff series since leaving the Warriors in 2019. He’s one win away from finally doubling that figure.

2. The return of Russ

The only real consolation for the Clippers is Westbrook. He’s receiving a career cleansing in this series. He came across town two months ago bringing baggage, but that’s been unpacked since. His last three games: 28, 30 and then 37 points Saturday, all without George, and the last two without Kawhi.

Even in his 3-for-19 Game 1 shooting stinker, Russ heroically won that for the Clippers. Therefore, by default Russ has assumed the Alpha Dog role, or shall we say, reclaimed it, because this first round has invoked 2016-17 Russ, when he won Kia NBA MVP by dragging OKC after Durant left. Durant came to his defense Saturday, saying: “When he retires, people are gonna tell the truth about his game. Right now, (critics) make a joke out of Russ.”

Russ has had the misfortune of seeing a total of four future Hall of Famers leaving him holding the bag: KD and James Harden in OKC, and now PG and Kawhi in this series. Imagine if he never had those departures? What would his image/trophy case look like? About this latest experience, Russ said: “My approach is the same. Leaving everything on the floor and I can live with the result.”

Well, from an individual standpoint, the result has been excellent. Russ is playing more efficiently (41% from 3!) and less reckless, all the drawbacks that doomed him with the Lakers. It has been, in hindsight, a productive marriage between the Clippers and Russ since he arrived from the Lakers via the Jazz. But where does it go from here? Russ makes $44 million in this, the final year of his max contract. He’s not getting in that zip code again. The Clippers don’t own his Bird Rights, but at this point, after accumulating over $200 million in earnings, maybe Russ doesn’t bother chasing the dollar.

Maybe, if the Clippers want him back, he decides to stay home.

3. Clippers coming up (two) short

There is no immediate timetable for the return of Clippers star Kawhi Leonard.

Is it too soon to examine the Paul George-Kawhi Leonard Experience, now nearing the end of its fourth season? Well, not exactly. And while it’s too soon to call it a failure — the Clippers have put a winning product on the floor and missed the playoffs only once while becoming relevant — there’s an air of disappointment because of all the injuries and lack of an NBA Finals appearance, much less a title.

Here’s the rest of the telling tally: Those two have played together in only 24 of a possible 36 playoff games. They lost to the Nuggets in the 2020 bubble when PG was fried mentally. The next season, Kawhi injured his knee in the semis against the Jazz. Kawhi missed all of last season. And now, Paul hasn’t suited up all series and Kawhi missed his second straight game with knee issues.

Overall, this isn’t the bang Steve Ballmer hoped to get for his bucks. And speaking of cold cash: Both players are only under (max) contract for next season, with their option for the 2024-25 season. Do the Clippers, for example, extend Kawhi given his medical history? This is crucial because the new arena is scheduled to open during that option year.

How badly does Ballmer want to have a winning product on the floor for the arena debut, and does he (literally and figuratively) put his money on Leonard and George to do that?

4. The other Paul is still a problem

Here in his age 37 season, it doesn’t take a basketball scientist to know Chris Paul has regressed a bit. His career numbers are all down and the impact games are far fewer. Yet in this current setup, the Suns only need him to find the open man. They need him to link with Booker, keep learning where KD likes his touches, and throw lobs to Deandre Ayton. Oh, and if he wants to supply some buckets, the Suns will take it.

Which is what happened Saturday when, for a brief flash, Paul felt like he was back in his prime with the Clippers (well, at least he was in a familiar building). His fourth quarter was terrific. He spent it shaking defenders and pulling up from midrange. And then, the dagger: With three minutes left, there was a mad scramble for the ball and the shot clock was getting dangerous. Paul seized control of the ball 20 feet from the hoop and with his back to the basket. He turned, heaved and … bucket. The crowd gasped, the Suns celebrated, Paul smirked.

OK, then.

For the quarter, Paul had a dozen points. For the game, Paul had 19 points, nine assists and, true to his mastery of the ball, no turnovers. As you know, all that Paul is lacking is an NBA title. With the trade for KD, Paul has another shot at one. If given that chance, at least we suspect he won’t turn the ball over.

5. Phoenix flourishing at the right time

The Suns have lost only once with Durant in the lineup, and there’s a theory about the NBA Playoffs: The hottest team usually ends up winning it all.

It doesn’t hurt to be healthy as well, and right now, the Suns are scoring high marks for both. Their only blemish is Cameron Payne; the backup point guard hasn’t played since April 7 with a lower back injury. Given Chris Paul’s age, it’ll be somewhat important for Payne to have a presence in the next round, assuming Phoenix makes good on its 3-1 lead over LA.

That’s because the Suns will likely see the Nuggets and Jamal Murray, who’s having a solid opening round series against the Timberwolves. It might be too much for Chris Paul to defend against a quick point guard for the second series in a row; Westbrook is having a comeback at his expense.

As for the streaking Suns, they had a seven-game win streak just before the conclusion of the regular season and that put distance between them and any possibility of being in the Play-In Tournament. They split the season series with the Nuggets although Durant wasn’t a big part of that.

Given that Denver, unlike the Clippers, is fully healthy with Murray and Michael Porter Jr., it’ll be a step up in opponent for the Suns.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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