LAC: 47-25 regular season record (4th in the Western Conference); 116.7 OFFRTG (3rd in the league); 110.6 DEFRTG (8th in the league); 6.1 NETRTG (2nd in the league).
PHO: 51-21 regular season record (2nd in the Western Conference); 116.3 OFFRTG (7th in the league); 110.4 DEFRTG (6th in the league); 5.9 NETRTG (3rd in the league).
Head-to-head matchup: LA wins regular season series 2-1
Perhaps the first step the LA Clippers should take if they hope to overcome the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals is to fall down 0-2 in the series.
The strategy has worked wonders for them so far; after losing their first two games at home to the Dallas Mavericks, the Clippers were miraculously able to bounce back and take the First Round series in seven games. Then, on Friday night, LA became the first team in NBA history to come back from two 0-2 deficits in the same playoff run, finishing off the Utah Jazz in six games despite missing All-Star Kawhi Leonard with a nebulus knee injury for the final two. It seems the Clippers love to play with their backs against the wall (last year’s postseason collapse would suggest they don’t do well with comfortable leads).
Now, the Clippers are set to take on another regular-season juggernaut: the Phoenix Suns. let’s breakdown the matchup on both sides of the ball, as well as some key availability variables, before making an educated guess as to who will ultimately represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
Who’s actually playing, and when?
The severity of Leonard’s aforementioned knee injury could ultimately determine whether the Clippers can win a title should they advance, but based on the schedule of the Conference Finals, it seems as though Leonard will miss the series regardless. The team has been officially defining the injury as a “right knee sprain,” and Shams Charania reported that the team fears it could be an “ACL injury.” Ramona Shelburne added that the team cannot determine the severity of the injury until the swelling has gone down.
“Injury” does not necessarily equate to full tear. If it is indeed a severe tear, Leonard is, without a doubt, out for the season, and will likely miss a large chunk of next year as well. However, playing blogger-doctor here, a grade 1 sprain can heal on its own without surgery in as little as a few weeks. Having said that, even if the Conference Finals stretch to seven games, Game 7 will take place on July 2, just 18 days after Leonard suffered the injury while playing the Jazz. That would be an extremely expedited return for Leonard, and he and his camp have been known to err on the side of caution as it pertains to injuries.
It seems the Suns will also be missing an All-Star for at least part of the series, but not due to injury; Chris Paul entered health and safety protocols on Wednesday, and Tim Bontemps reported on Saturday that he has yet to be cleared, meaning he’ll likely miss Sunday’s Game 1. It is unclear whether Paul contracted COVID-19, and former teammate Matt Barnes confirmed that Paul told him he was vaccinated for the virus. The NBA has looser restrictions for players who have been vaccinated, but he cannot play until he returns a negative COVID test. After struggling against the Lakers in Round One due to a shoulder contusion, Paul was spectacular in Round Two against the Nuggets, putting up averages of 25.5 points and 10.3 assists on 61.8%/58.3%/100% shooting splits through the Suns’ clean sweep of Denver. When and if he is cleared to play could be the difference-maker in this series.
After dealing with one of the more modern, three-point heavy offenses in the league in Utah, the Clippers will now face a more traditional (though still extremely efficient) offensive scheme against Phoenix. Though they hit their threes at a high clip (37.8%), they are middle of the pack in terms of percentage of field goal attempts that are threes (15th in the league). They live in the midrange, attempting the third-most shots from 10-14 feet out and the fifth-most from 15-19 feet out. Paul is notorious for his midrange game, and All-Star Devin Booker has become a master of it as well, operating out of the post and at the elbow. Though these are statistically the least efficient shots in basketball when a league-average player is attempting them, they can be deadly when properly implemented by proven tough-shot makers like Phoenix’s backcourt.
The Suns carry another staple of Chris Paul-led teams: they move the ball without being careless with it. They led the league in assist/turnover ratio this season (Paul is the league’s all-time leader in that stat). The Clippers do not necessarily rely on forcing turnovers to generate transition offense (19th in the league in points off turnovers), but they’re not going to get the chance very often in this series. The Suns are not going to beat themselves, and they’re going to get a good shot almost every time down.
The Clippers will have to revert back to their mindset versus the Mavericks for this Phoenix matchup. Both teams are methodical, probing, pick-and-rolling their opponent to death until they find a mismatch that they like. Where it was Doncic doing the hunting in Round One, it’ll be Booker and potentially Paul in Round 3. Though they have no problem isolating, they also love to get to the elbow using the space generated by the screen, rising up for a jumper before the defender can recover. Deandre Ayton was tied for third in the league in screen assists in the regular season for precisely this reason.
As a result, it might be wise to stick with the switching lineup that has gotten LA to this point. Ivica Zubac will no doubt have his moments, particularly against bench units, but he’s struggled to defend the pick-and-roll against dynamic ball-handlers in the postseason (Doncic and Mitchell each had their way with him), whether or not the Clippers are in drop coverage. Ayton presents a different problem than Rudy Gobert, as he is more of a post-up threat with touch around the rim, and Phoenix might look to feed him in the post if LA goes small. In these cases, Zubac could be useful. However, he has struggled to contain Ayton as a lob threat in the regular season, allowing Booker and Paul to pass over the top of him when they pull him away from the rim. Offensive rebounding could also be an issue if LA goes small, but if Ayton is forced to run out to shooters in the corner, he won’t be near the rim to grab them.
Phoenix was top-10 in the regular season at limiting opponent field goal attempts at the rim, though they allowed the sixth-highest shooting percentage in that zone once opponents were able to get their shots off. This shouldn’t phase the Clippers, as they do not rely on points in the paint to generate offense; they ranked 28th in the league in terms of field goal attempts within five feet or less. The Suns were also middle of the pack (12th) in terms of allowing three-point attempts, which also bodes well, given the fact that LA was one of the most efficient three-point shooting teams of all time in the regular season, and their volume of attempts has increased since entering the postseason.
Paul George averaged 32.3 points on 56.3%/60.7%/80% shooting splits through three games against the Suns in the regular season. It’s his third-highest average for him versus any opponent, and it is based on a larger sample size than the two figures above it. He’s owned the Phoenix, despite the Suns having the like-sized personnel to deal with him in Jae Crowder, Cam Johnson and All-Defense team snub Mikal Bridges. Without Leonard, however, the Suns can pay even more attention to George. He was superhuman against Utah in Leonard’s absence, and he’ll need to be once again to overcome Phoenix.
With Leonard out, the Clippers no longer have the luxury of being able to confidently say they have the best player in the series on their side. On a given night, it could be George, but it could also be Booker or Paul (when/if he plays). It could even be Ayton, if can make the most of his size and skill against LA’s wings.
As previously stated, the series could come down to Paul’s availability. He seems to have recovered from his shoulder contusion, and though the Clippers have decent options to deal with him (Patrick Beverley has a bit of playoff experience hounding Paul), he’s a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer who’s proven throughout the year to still be effective despite his advanced age. When he’s available, Phoenix has a brilliant pick-and-roll maestro on the court for 48 minutes between him and Booker. If he’s out, the non-Booker minutes could prove ugly for the Suns, just as the non-Doncic minutes were for the Mavericks and the non-Mitchell minutes were for the Jazz in their respective series against LA.
Booker no-doubt has the potential to carry this team himself when he’s on the court. He posted a career-high in usage this season despite the addition of Paul, and he’s turning the ball over less than he ever has. His combination of size, speed and ball-handling make him a matchup nightmare for LA, and without Leonard, the task will likely fall on George to defend him sooner or later.
George’s ability to maintain as a no. 1 option offensively is the other crucial factor. If continues to prove his doubters wrong as he has in his last two games without Leonard by his side, the Clippers are a tough team to beat. But if he falters, and the Clippers’ role players have multiple off-shooting nights (Marcus Morris Sr. can sway games based on whether he is terrific or terrible from three—there is no in between), there is no 45-point cyborg game from Leonard coming to bail LA out.
Just to cover all the bases, let's break the final prediction down into two realities: one where Paul is available for the majority of the series, and one where he isn’t.