Given, particularly, where the Clippers finished in the standings during the regular season, this is an unlikely matchup to play for a berth into the championship series and the paths the two sides took to meet with one another is indicative of their apparent disparity.
The Suns, owners of the second-best record in the NBA this season, have definitively proven themselves as legitimate title contenders as they took out the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in six games in the first round and then swept aside league MVP Nikola Jokic and his Denver Nuggets afterwards.
While the Suns made their path to the Conference Final look relatively easy, it’s been nearly the exact opposite for the Clippers. Los Angeles squeaked by the Dallas Mavericks in seven games in the first round and then, impressively, came back from down 2-0 to the team with the best record in the NBA, the Utah Jazz. The Clippers won four straight against them and took their second-round matchup in six games – with the last two wins coming without All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard, no less.
Because of their series sweep, the Suns will have had a full week off before the start of the Western Conference Final Sunday afternoon. The Clippers, on the other hand, will have had just one day to rest up and prepare for their opponent.
The Clippers have the potential to be the crisper team out of the gate, but you have to wonder — after the battles they’ve endured over their first two rounds — how much more wear and tear they can take. Phoenix will likely just have to shake off some rust but, as the rested team, look to be in a more advantageous position to reach the Finals.
Here’s a closer look at this series, as we tee up the big storyline to watch for, the series’ key matchup, x-factors on both sides and, of course, make our series prediction.
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The big storyline
Though it sucks to say, the largest storyline around this series is the shadow that’s been cast over it with potential absences of the two biggest stars in it.
Chris Paul was both brilliant and instrumental in the Suns’ four-game sweep of the Nuggets. But a few days after his 37-point eruption finished off Denver in Game 4 of their second-round series, it was reported that Paul was being placed in health and safety protocols and would be sidelined indefinitely. On Saturday, Paul was officially ruled out for Game 1 and there isn’t currently much more optimism about his return to the lineup.
Paul is Phoenix’s most important player and the hope for the Suns is that he will eventually get cleared to play at some point during the series, which is a better situation than the one the Clippers are facing, at least.
As mentioned before, Leonard is out with a knee injury he appeared to suffer in Game 4 of the Clippers’ second-round series. Though the specifics have not been confirmed by the team, Leonard was ruled out for Game 1 and is feared to have suffered an ACL injury to his right knee, something that’s looking increasingly likely as he reportedly isn’t travelling with his Clippers teammates to Phoenix.
Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard holds his knee after stepping awkwardly during the second half in Game 4 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Utah Jazz Monday, June 14, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill / AP)
Even though Los Angeles did manage to get the job done thanks to Paul George filling in for his fellow all-star’s shoes, and some epic performances from role players Terance Mann and Reggie Jackson, this is obviously a massive blow to the Clippers. Unlike the Suns, with Paul being otherwise able to play outside of the NBA’s COVID protocols, this knee injury doesn’t come with much promise that Leonard will be able to return anytime soon.
So while the trip to the Finals will obviously be determined on the court, there will almost certainly be just as much attention spent off the court on Paul and Leonard as their statuses are being updated daily.
Key matchup: Booker vs. George
In the potential absence of both Paul and Leonard, the matchup to watch for in this series will be the potential duel between the two sides’ secondary-but-just-as-dynamic stars: Devin Booker and George.
Both Booker and George were spectacular in the second round, with Booker going off for 25.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game against the Nuggets while George was even better, scoring 29 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists while shooting 41.7 per cent from three-point range against the Jazz.
We highlight this matchup not only because these two could potentially be the best players on each team but also because there’s a good chance that George, at least, could see quite a bit of time as the primary defender against Booker.
Without Leonard, George is the Clippers’ best perimeter defender. While he spent his time mostly on Mikal Bridges during the regular season when the Clippers and Suns met, with Nicolas Batum getting the brunt of defensive possessions against Booker, if Booker gets hot it might be in Clippers coach Tyronn Lue’s best interest to put George on the Suns star to try to slow him down.
Of course, doing this may come at the expense of George’s offence as he’ll need to expend a lot of energy chasing down Booker, so it’s a decision that Lue would have to weigh carefully.
Still, though, even if George and Booker don’t end up guarding one another, this is still a series that could come down to how well the two stars perform, ultimately.
Phoenix Suns’ Devin Booker (1) draws a foul from Los Angeles Clippers’ Paul George (13) during an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)
Suns: DeAndre Ayton
Though he hasn’t grabbed as many headlines as some of his Suns teammates, without Ayton Phoenix wouldn’t be here right now.
He dueled both Anthony Davis and Jokic in the first two rounds and, while you can’t say he necessarily won those matchups, he was effective nonetheless as he’s averaged 15.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game on incredible 71.6 per cent shooting during this post-season, all the while anchoring the top defence in the Western Conference playoffs so far.
The Clippers have a decided lack of size, and while playing small worked against the Jazz, Ayton is a far more mobile big than Rudy Gobert and has the foot speed to get out and contest three-point shooters, so the five-out strategy that Los Angeles used to neutralize Utah’s three-time defensive player of the year may not work quite as well against Ayton.
Clippers: Reggie Jackson
As fun, and timely, as it would be to place Mann in this spot, we’re going with the more prudent choice of Jackson.
Against the Jazz, Jackson averaged 18 points per game on 58.8 per cent shooting and a 50 per cent mark from deep. Additionally, as evidenced by his 29-, 22- and 27-point bursts in Games 2, 5 and 6 of that Utah series, he’s liable to get hot at any moment in a series.
Should the Clippers be without Leonard for the series, they’re going to need Jackson to be more than just a streaky scorer. But his timely shot-making and fearlessness make him a dangerous player that the Suns will need to account for, regardless.
Suns in six.
The Clippers have become one of the best stories of this post-season, particularly because they’ve managed to dispel the idea that they can’t get up for big games.
With that said, however, the injury to Leonard seems more severe than the Clippers have been letting on and it wouldn’t be surprising if he ended up getting shut down for the series.
Contrast that with the better chance the Suns have of getting Paul back, in addition to the stronger defence Phoenix has played, overall, than the Clippers so far in these playoffs and it’s tough not seeing the Suns reaching their first Finals since 1993.