2021 Playoffs: West Final | Suns vs. Clippers
With 2-0 series lead, Suns expect fight from Clippers as series shifts to Los Angeles
Phoenix is nearly whole and Chris Paul is expected back, but it is taking nothing for granted given LA's skill in series comebacks.
Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker admitted he’s “seen this movie before” with regards to Deandre Ayton’s “The Valley-Oop” game-winner that sealed Phoenix’s 104-103 victory over the LA Clippers in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. Snatch the quote out of context for a second to ponder what might be next.
The recent theatrics acted out by these teams suggest a couple of different plot lines could unfold, starting Thursday with Game 3 at Staples Center (9 ET, ESPN). The Clippers have already overcome a pair of 2-0 deficits in the previous two rounds, becoming the first team in NBA history to recover from such deficits on multiple occasions in the same postseason. The last time we watched Phoenix take a 2-0 advantage in a series, it ended up sweeping the Denver Nuggets 4-0 in the Western Conference semifinals.
Status updates on stars Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard only add drama to this script.
“I mean, we’ve got our game plan,” said Clippers forward Paul George, who missed a pair of key free throws in Game 2 with 8.2 seconds remaining and his team up 103-102. “We’ll game plan for when CP is back. You know, I’m not going to say [backup point guard Cameron Payne] is as good or he’s on the same level as CP in a way.
“But I think without CP here, Cameron Payne has done an unbelievable job of filling in for CP. So, we’re going to have to game plan around CP. It’s going to be that much tougher. We’ve seen a high-level Suns team. We have to trust who we are, trust our guns on our team and continue to play with confidence throughout this series.”
Paul’s return certainly might make that more difficult for LA.
With Paul isolated in quarantine, Payne poured in a career-high 29 points in Tuesday’s Game 2 victory after a Game 1 performance in which he produced 11 points and nine assists on the same night Devin Booker racked up a 40-point triple-double.
“We have depth on our team,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It’s young depth, but we have depth. Against a team deep like the Clippers, you just need it. There’s not a lot of room for drop-off.”
Before the league’s Health and Safety protocols sidelined him for the first two games of this series, Paul, 36, averaged 25.5 points and 10.3 rebounds in the Suns’ sweep of the Nuggets in the conference semifinals.
Headed into Game 2, Williams discussed the prospect of Paul’s return to the lineup.
“We don’t have the luxury of waiting on anybody right now,” Williams said. “This game is so important, every practice, every film session. 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. 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 just make that assessment when the time comes.”
It’s here now with a berth to The Finals on the line.
Phoenix’s win in Game 2 marked its ninth straight win, which extended the longest postseason winning streak in team history. Six of the last 10 teams who captured at least nine consecutive wins within one postseason ended up winning The Finals.
The Suns are 5-2 all-time when leading a series 2-0, while LA now owns a record of 0-6 in Games 1 and 2 this postseason and trail 2-0 for the third consecutive round.
So, the Clippers understand the situation headed into Game 3.
“The confidence of this team hasn’t wavered,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “Guys have said, ‘Alright, we’ve got to go home now,’ and they are in good spirits. We’ve just got to move on, get ready for Game 3.”
Added guard Patrick Beverley: “We’ve been in the trenches before. We respond well in the trenches. We’ll respond well. We always do.”
Of course, Paul’s return without leading scorer Leonard in the fold makes LA’s pending response more difficult.
“We’ve got to find a way to fight our way back into the series,” George added. “That’s just what it comes down to. It’s no secret. It’s no science to it. We just have to find a way, play ourselves back into this series, tie it up. We know we’ve got to win here at some point.”
So, no doubt, the Clippers remain undaunted, given their experience overcoming long odds this postseason.
LA is now 3-6 this season, including the playoffs, in games decided by three points or fewer, and neither team has led by more than 10 points in the first two games of this series.
So, expect this one to come down to the wire like the first two games.
“It’s going to get hard,” Ayton said of Game 3. “Those dudes are going to come out even stronger, [with] more physicality and they’re going to attack us. We’ve just got to be prepared for anything here.”
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