Suns-Clippers series preview
The Suns are back in the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2010 and are the heavy favorites to reach their first Finals since 1993. Standing in their way is a determined Clippers squad that seemingly won't die, even as injuries threaten their title hopes.
Here's our preview and favorite wager on the series.
2. Suns (-220) vs. 4. Clippers (+180)
|TEAM||RECORD||ATS||HEAD-TO-HEAD||NET (REG)||NET (POST)|
|Phoenix Suns||59-23||48-32-2||1-2||+5.9 (3rd)||+9.9 (1st)|
|Los Angeles Clippers||54-30||46-37-1||2-1||+6.1 (2nd)||+7.8 (3rd)|
No team is hotter in this year's postseason than the Suns, who have won seven straight games by an average of 16.3 points and outscored their opponents by 10.2 points through 10 games - the 11th-highest scoring margin by any playoff team through the first two rounds since 2003. Phoenix achieved that mark despite being favored in just five of those 10 contests.
Don't count out the Clippers, which won four straight after falling behind 0-2 to the Jazz in the second round. The club pulled off a similar feat against the Mavericks in Round 1, demonstrating adaptability late in these series even after falling behind early in both matchups.
Los Angeles still relied on a series of unlikely events to survive its second-round series and improbably converted 12-of-15 shots in Game 6 against Rudy Gobert, who won his third Defensive Player of the Year award a week earlier. The Clippers rode a 39-point outburst from Terance Mann - who has more games with zero points (15) than 15 points (11) this season - and they erased a 25-point deficit, tied for the seventh-largest comeback in NBA playoff history.
The squad did it all without Kawhi Leonard, who missed his team's last two games and is out indefinitely with a sprained knee. Can L.A. win a full series without him? Paul George was pedestrian after his stellar Game 5, and he's now averaging 21 points on 35.7% shooting immediately following a 35-point game throughout his postseason career. If George can't string together efficient outings with Leonard sidelined, the Clippers don't have enough offensive firepower to compete.
Yes, L.A. did patch together an efficient night in Game 6 behind an extreme inside-out approach. Of their 131 points, 42 came in the paint and 60 came from the perimeter, with another 15 coming from the charity stripe. But those buckets won't come so easily against the Suns' defense, which is more adaptable than Utah's and has held opposing sides to 104.7 points per 100 possessions this postseason - second-best by any unit.
In the first round, Phoenix walled off the paint and forced LeBron James and the Lakers into ill-advised jumpers, which effectively neutralized their entire approach. In Round 2, the Suns swarmed Nikola Jokic inside and cut off his passing lanes, holding the MVP to 25 points and 5.8 assists per game in a four-game sweep.
You could argue that both of those teams are better than this version of the Clippers, especially on offense. Los Angeles' five-out approach worked wonders against Gobert, who has long struggled to justify minutes in the playoffs when other clubs stretch the floor. It won't be as effective against the athletic Deandre Ayton, who will also give the Clips fits on the other end.
Chris Paul's availability is one potential X-factor for this series, and his status is in doubt after entering the league's health and safety protocols. Paul is a key reason why Phoenix has assisted on 61.3% of its baskets in the postseason, best by any team, but Devin Booker's elite shot-making and Ayton's success inside have remained consistent - even when CP3 was less than 100% during the first two rounds.
Speaking of Booker, L.A. doesn't have an answer for him on defense, either. With Leonard sidelined indefinitely, the task of stopping Booker likely falls to George, who needs to carry a sizable offensive load for his side to have a chance. Can he do both across a seven-game series?
Perhaps Leonard comes back midway through this series and sparks a miraculous comeback. Maybe Paul's absence lasts longer than expected and derails the Suns' title hopes. Neither option seems likely, nor do the odds of this version of the Clippers stealing more than a pair of wins from a superior (and healthier) foe.
Pick: Suns -1.5 series wins (+110)