There may not be a first round series in the playoffs this year with two teams under more pressure than the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers. Both teams are trying to escape the ghosts of their past — the Suns (pun not intended) flamed out of the postseason last year against the Dallas Mavericks in one of the most embarrassing Game 7 performances we have ever seen, and responded by going all-in at the trade deadline and acquiring one of the best players in the world. The Clippers are, I mean, do I even need to list everything that has happened in the history of the Los Angeles Clippers at this point in the NBA’s calendar?
It is hard to imagine what is coming for the loser of this series, with both expensive, star-studded rosters put together by owners that want to win as soon as possible. It’s also hard to figure out, exactly, who is going to end up losing this series in general, although the injury to Paul George that is likely to keep him out for the series certainly complicates things in Los Angeles.
With all that out of the way, let’s take a look at the 4-5 matchup in the Western Conference before things tip off on Sunday evening.
Keys for the Suns
There is, basically, one question that looms over everything for the Phoenix Suns, not just in this series, but for as long as they are in the postseason this year: Have they had enough time to make this work?
The team pulled off perhaps the most high-profile midseason trade in NBA history at the deadline by giving up the farm to acquire Kevin Durant from the Brooklyn Nets. Unsurprisingly, when Durant has played, he has been nothing short of magnificent, averaging 26 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.3 blocks in 33.6 minutes per game. His shooting splits: 57 percent from the floor, 53.7 percent from three, an uncharacteristically low 83.3 percent from the free throw line. Lineups with himself, Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and Deandre Ayton all on the floor together have a net rating of 18.2, per PBPStats.
The problem is that those four have played a total of 180 minutes together. Yes, the Suns are 8-0 with Durant in the lineup, but the playoffs are entirely different animal. What happens if/when they get hit in the mouth and the pressure that comes with being in the playoffs is suddenly ramped up? The Durant/Booker/Paul trio is a group of basketball geniuses, but is the inherent chemistry that can only come from playing together already there? With how good the Clippers can be at junking up games with their army of rangy dudes who can switch, will they be able to knock the Suns out of the rhythm that makes them so beautiful to watch at their very best?
Regardless, Monty Williams can and should keep at least two of these guys on the floor at all times. Assuming health (a gigantic assumption, particularly with Durant and Paul), Phoenix should have enough firepower to go at the Clippers for 48 minutes every single night. If they can cobble together enough from their other guys — Josh Okogie, Terrence Ross, Cameron Payne, Jock Landale, Damion Lee, TJ Warren, Torrey Craig, etc. — to keep Los Angeles honest, those four stars are good enough to make them pay.
Keys for the Clippers
Well, obviously, there’s this Kawhi Leonard guy who has a proven track record of being one of the NBA’s premier postseason killers. With Paul George sidelined, Leonard’s importance increases tenfold, and fortunately for Los Angeles, Leonard has been out of his mind since the All-Star break. The limited amount he has played will probably cost him an All-NBA nod, but in the second half of the season, Leonard has averaged 27.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 3.7 assists in nearly 36 minutes per game while hitting 53.8 percent of his shots from the field and 47 percent of his threes. He’s doing all of this on basically the exact same usage pre and post All-Star. He’s just back to being Kawhi Leonard, which means the NBA’s grim reaper is ready to go at the time of year when he’s historically been at his best.
A major thing for the Clippers might come down to whether or not they can throw guy after guy after guy at Booker and Durant and slow them down just enough. You obviously cannot stop those two entirely — they are two of the best 1-on-1 players on earth, capable of going deep into their respective bags of tricks to get themselves good looks no matter what you do — but this L.A. team is built around having guys who can provide different looks on the wings. Even without George, Ty Lue can turn to Leonard, Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington, Marcus Morris, and Norman Powell with the hopes that they can provide speed bumps on both stars.
And then there’s Russell Westbrook. Without George, his importance as the team’s second-best option to initiate their offense increases considerably. It’s a credit to him that he’s been quite good since George went down (19.3 points, 8.6 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 53 percent from the field, 50 percent from three(!!!) in the last seven games) but the pressure is about to ramp up considerably. Can he punish a Phoenix defense that will challenge him by going underneath screens, give him chances to beat them, and have a pair of bigs in Ayton and Durant waiting for him at the rim when he attacks? With George out, Westbrook becomes far, far more important, and so far, he’s answered the call.
The big man battle in this series is going to be a delight. Ivica Zubac has been one of the NBA’s most underrated players for what feels like a decade at this point. Deandre Ayton is a double-double machine whose willingness to battle against big, physical opponents is under-appreciated. When they go to the bench, Mason Plumlee and Bismack Biyombo are a pair of steady veteran hands who can keep things moving — Plumlee, obviously, is far newer to the Clippers than Biyombo is to the Suns, so perhaps the latter has an edge on the former. Jock Landale has consistently given Phoenix decent minutes when he’s been called upon. With how much these teams rely on guards and wings, any edge that can be gained in the frontcourt is gigantic.
There’s also just the general balance of talent in this series. The Suns have two guys who can go off on any single day, plus two guys who have consistently helped them get the job done (and, in fairness, can give them 20+ points on a given day, too). Then, things fall off a bit for them. The Clippers, meanwhile, have Leonard, and while they lack a defined second option, they can make up the rest via what they get from guys like Russell Westbrook, Norman Powell, Marcus Morris, Eric Gordon, Bones Hyland, Terance Mann, Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington, and the Zubac/Plumlee duo. However, with all those options comes the requirement that Ty Lue pull the right strings at the right times, and be quick in recognizing who is working — and maybe more importantly who isn’t — against various matchups. Leonard almost certainly won’t single-handedly match Booker and Durant’s production. That puts the onus on everyone else on the Clippers’ roster to help make up for that against Ayton, Chris Paul, and the rest.