No need to read too much into the regular-season series between these teams.
Yes, the LA Clippers won the regular-season series 2-1 over the Phoenix Suns, but these teams seem to be in much different places since their last meeting back in April.
They’re both peaking.
The well-rested Suns appear to be gaining confidence and momentum with each postseason outing, while the Clippers have found a way to thrive without the services of star forward Kawhi Leonard, who missed Games 5 and 6 of the conference semifinals due to a sprained knee. In Leonard’s absence, Paul George, Terance Mann, Reggie Jackson and Patrick Beverley proved the Clippers can get it done without their leading scorer. Each stepped up with stellar performances in Game 6 against Utah to help LA erase a 25-point deficit and advance to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
Phoenix hasn’t played a game in a week, but coach Monty Williams said he’s sought advice about how to best utilize the period of inactivity.
“We’re just trying to manage these days,” Williams said. “I’ve talked to a number of coaches who have been in this situation just to get information on how they’ve handled this much time off and that kind of thing. We’re trying to keep a game rhythm the best we can.”
That means a series of practices last week that gradually ramped up in intensity as Phoenix awaited its Western Conference finals opponent.
The Clippers, meanwhile, start the conference finals on the road with just one day of rest after Friday’s hard-fought series win over the Jazz.
3 things to watch
1. Availability of star power
Chris Paul entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols on Wednesday, and it’s expected Saturday that Phoenix will update the point guard’s status. Paul isn’t expected to miss extensive time. But in a matchup like this, every game is crucial. Leonard sat out of Games 5 and 6 of the conference semifinals after suffering a sprained knee in the fourth quarter of Game 4. The Clippers said Leonard will be out indefinitely. So, there’s no telling when or if the two-time NBA Finals MVP will be able to return in this series.
Going into Game 5, Clippers coach Ty Lue said there was no timetable for Leonard’s potential return, and that’s crushing for a team set to play in its first Western Conference finals. Leonard racked up 31 points or more in his last two outings, hitting 53.5% from the field. Leonard led the NBA in scoring before Kevin Durant passed him up with a 32-point outing in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Still, George, Mann, Jackson and Beverley flashed enough glimpses of greatness in closing out Utah to make you believe the Clippers might be just fine without Leonard.
2. Wing dinner
Phoenix’s guards receive most of the shine, but this series will likely come down to the wings. The Suns will count on suffocating defense and timely buckets from Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges, who will be handed the responsibility of guarding George if Leonard is out. George, Marcus Morris Sr., and Mann should figure prominently on both ends for the Clippers, especially if Leonard is out.
Without Leonard in the fold, George is LA’s top perimeter defender, which means he’ll likely draw the assignment of guarding Phoenix’s two-time All-Star guard Devin Booker. Booker averaged 25.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists in the Suns’ four-game sweep of the Denver Nuggets. So, that’s not an easy assignment. Besides that, George will be counted upon heavily on the offensive end. Just look at what George did in Game 5 of the conference semifinals, before following up with another gem in Game 6. It’s worth wondering whether George guarding Booker will expend so much energy that it diminishes his production on the offensive end.
3. Deandre Ayton could be a problem
Battle tested and confident, having faced Anthony Davis and Kia MVP Nikola Jokic in the first two rounds of the playoffs, Ayton appears to be on a roll at just the right time. The numbers aren’t eyepopping, but his 15.2 points per game and 10.6 rebounds in the playoffs are actually up from what he did in the regular season (14.4 points, 10.5 rebounds). Ayton’s prowess as a screener and roller opens up the floor for Phoenix’s perimeter players on offense.
On the defensive end, Ayton is a major reason Phoenix ranks No. 1 in the postseason in defensive rating (104.7). Now, the Suns do rank No. 10 in the playoffs in opponent points in the paint, while the Clippers are No. 1. Ayton’s presence should slow down the Clippers in that department. But LA might struggle to defend Ayton. Ivica Zubac and DeMarcus Cousins aren’t athletic enough to get it done consistently.
Number to know
127.7 — In the first round, the Brooklyn Nets had the most efficient offensive series in the 25 years for which we have play-by-play data, scoring 128.0 points per 100 possessions over five games against the Boston Celtics, a team that ranked 13th defensively in the regular season. In the conference semis, the Clippers had the second most efficient series in the last 25 years, scoring 127.7 points per 100 possessions over six games against the Utah Jazz, who ranked third defensively in the regular season. After losing the first two games, the Clips scored a remarkable 133.7 points per 100 possessions over the last four, capping the series by shooting 14-for-19 from 3-point range in the second half of Game 6.
The Suns have had the second-ranked defense in the playoffs. In their two series wins, they’ve held the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets to 7.2 and 8.7 fewer points per 100 possessions than they scored in the regular season. They rank second in both opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area (60.4%) and opponent 3-point percentage (32.1%).
In the regular season, the Clippers had the fourth best offense against the Phoenix, scoring more than 120 points per 100 possessions in two of the three meetings (the two in which they had Kawhi Leonard). Paul George’s 32.3 points per game were the third highest average among players who played at least two games against the Suns, his effective field goal percentage of 69.5% was the fifth best mark among 75 players with at least 25 field goal attempts against the Suns, and his 17 3-pointers were six more than any other player made against the Suns.
— John Schuhmann
Respect to Suns coach Monty Williams for putting his team on this current path and establishing a culture in Phoenix that should last for several years to come. Throughout every setback encountered during the regular season and postseason, from COVID-19 to injuries, the Suns didn’t blink. That’s a testament to Williams, the leadership on the roster in Paul and Crowder, and the culture of accountability they’ve all established. Phoenix appears to be better equipped to handle playing without one of its stars than LA.
We definitely witnessed magic from the Clippers in the second half of Friday’s win over Utah. But ultimately, the Suns are a deeper team than LA, which will likely experience some matchup issues throughout the course of this series. The Clippers showcased incredible fight despite being overmatched at times in the conference semis to get here. But this is likely where the ride ends for LA. Suns in 7.
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