And then there were two. As the wild Western Conference is set to conclude with the Western Conference Finals, the Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns will battle for a ticket to the NBA Finals. This is the Clippers’ first trip to the Conference Finals in franchise history, while the Suns are in the Conference Finals for the first time since 2010. Both teams have shown out in these playoffs in unique ways and now will go head-to-head in the league’s most intriguing matchup yet. Let’s take a look at the matchups and keys to victory for both teams.
NBA Playoffs Preview: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Phoenix Suns
How Both Teams Got Here
The Los Angeles Clippers have taken a longer road than Phoenix to get to this position, as they came back from being 0-2 in both series against the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz. In the first round against the Mavericks, it was Kawhi Leonard that led them to victory, averaging 31 points per game, shooting over 64 percent in Games 4-7. In the semifinals against the Jazz, it was Paul George that led them to victory, averaging 29 points, 4.8 assists, and 9.3 rebounds. Unfortunately, a lot is at stake for the Clippers to fulfill their championship hopes, as Kawhi Leonard is out indefinitely with a knee injury, and is out for Game 1 on the road against the Suns.
On the other side, the Phoenix Suns have surged their way to the Conference Finals, as they defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round in six games, and swept the Denver Nuggets in the semifinals. However, just like the Clippers, a lot is at stake for the Suns, as Chris Paul is out indefinitely due to Health and Safety Protocols, as his latest COVID-19 test came out positive soon after the Suns Game 4 win. Devin Booker leads the team in points, as he’s averaging 27.9 points, 4.8 assists, and 6.8 rebounds.
Keys To Victory For The Clippers
The biggest key to victory for the Clippers in the absence of Kawhi Leonard is for every single player on the team to contribute. In the past few games, certain players showed up to help the Clippers win games. Paul George scored 37 points in Game 5 to put the Clippers up 3-2 against the Jazz, while Terance Mann scored a career-high 39 points in Game 6 to help the Clippers advance to the Conference Finals.
Tyronn Lue will have to continue experimenting with different lineups and minutes to find the best starting five against the Suns. Without Leonard in the lineup, players will tackle with more responsibilities against Phoenix. Paul George is LA’s top perimeter defender, so he’ll have a big job guarding Devin Booker. Players like Terance Mann, Reggie Jackson, or Marcus Morris Sr. have to figure out how to contribute consistently on both ends on the floor against wing players like Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder. The Clippers’ success in this series not only falls on how the players contribute; it also falls on Lue’s coaching adjustments and strategies.
Keys To Victory For The Suns
Even though Chris Paul’s availability is a big factor for the Suns getting to the Finals, Chris Paul’s leadership and presence has rubbed off well on the young players in Phoenix to shine all season long. This is the first deep post-season run for many players on the Suns like Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton, whose dominance and contributions will be key in this series.
Devin Booker continues to emerge as a superstar, especially in these playoffs. Averaging 27.9 points per game in the post-season, Booker is on pace to turn it up in the Conference Finals. Since he’ll be the main contributor on offense for a while until Paul returns, Booker will take on one of the biggest challenges in his career and can average up to 30 points per game in this series. The growth of DeAndre Ayton has been tremendous to watch in these playoffs, as he’s stepped up defensively against the likes of Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic. Averaging 15.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, and shooting 71 percent from the field in the playoffs, Ayton brings that elite center presence for the Suns, as his offensive efficiency and rim-protecting abilities make him a dominant force in the paint, matching up very well against LA’s centers.
Like Booker and Ayton, many other players have a chance to rise to the occasion in the Conference Finals. Cameron Payne is expected to play more minutes with Paul being out and has done a good job in the absence of Chris Paul, averaging 12.5 points against the Lakers in the first round and shooting 41 percent from three-point range. Picking up Jae Crowder was a plus for Phoenix, as the wing player is averaging 11.7 points and 5.1 rebounds, shooting over 38 percent from three-point range.
When it comes to bench production, there is a demand for both teams bench to perform well in the absence of Leonard and Paul. With Cameron Payne moving to the starting 1 spot replacing Chris Paul, the Suns will have to rely on Torrey Craig, Cameron Johnson, and Dario Saric to put up points when necessary. However, due to Paul being more available, there hasn’t been much bench production from the group, as they together averaged only 5.9 points from the bench in the semifinals against the Nuggets. In the same fashion, The Clippers have to step up with more role players performing on the bench, as Luke Kennard is the only bench player with the most consistent average numbers (8.8 points, 51 percent from the field, 52.3 percent from three-point range).
Final Prediction: Suns over Clippers in Seven Games
The Phoenix Suns have the best advantage in this series, as they’re more loaded, more healthy, and had over a week of rest, putting themselves in the best position to get to the Finals. Even while the status of Chris Paul will have an impact on how the series fares, Phoenix has continued to be dominant and grow in the playoffs, with players like Booker and Ayton reaching their full potential of being superstars. As long as the young players and the rest of the team continue to play at a high level offensively and defensively, they will come out as one of the most surprising and fun teams to watch this season and be the best in the West.