The NBA Western Conference final showdown between the Phoenix Suns and LA Clippers will begin without two of the league’s biggest stars.
Suns goalie Chris Paul, who remains in league health and safety protocols, was ruled out of Game 1 (3:30 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC) and Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard did not travel with team in Phoenix as he continues to cope with a sprained right knee.
But don’t worry: there’s a lot of star power to kick off this series – and maybe even a star in the making.
What does Terance Mann, fresh off 39 points in the Clippers’ final victory over Utah Jazz, have for a recall as he replaces Leonard? Can Paul George continue to lead LA after living up to his nickname “Playoff P” in the Western Semifinals?
And after a week off, will Devin Booker deliver like he did in the series wins over the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets?
Our experts break down each team’s path to the series and the keys that could decide who will reach the NBA Finals.
MORE: Full NBA Playoff Schedule, Results & News
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
How the suns got here:
The road to their first Western Conference final since 2010 may have seemed easy, but for the Suns, it was harder than it looked.
The Lakers presented themselves in the first round as the scariest No.7 seed possible, a cruel reward for Phoenix’s best regular season result in over a decade. Pulling the straw short against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending champions appeared to be a potential recipe for an early and frustrating exit and unhappy ending that prevented a proper assessment of the Suns’ quality.
The Suns were down 2-1 in that series, and with Paul’s shoulder ailing it looked like the basketball gods had a problem with Point God. But Paul’s shoulder improved while the Lakers’ shoulder worsened as Davis struggled with a groin problem. Phoenix toppled the series, winning Game 4 on the road to the series equalizer, setting the table for a rout in the crucial Game 5 and ultimately the moment of arrival of Booker’s true superstar, when he lost 47 in a series End of game 6.
With the Nuggets and league MVP Nikola Jokic next, Paul’s physical improvement was critical. All he did was carve Denver into one of the most ruthlessly effective performances of all time. The 36-year-old averaged 25.5 points on 62% of shots (58% of 3), didn’t miss a free throw and had a 41-5 assists ratio for the series. The Suns dominated, winning the first three games averaging 18.6 points. Jokic was cast in Game 4, but it was already too late to avoid the sweep.
Now the Suns and Paul are back in the realm of uncertainty: Paul is staying within league health and safety protocols. He will return for the series at some point, but it’s a matter of when and where the situation will be. The Phoenix kids have been impressive so far, but they, along with Booker, will need to grow bigger than ever while they wait for Paul to return.
– Royce Young
How the Clippers got here:
There is one playoff game, the Clippers couldn’t close the deal, collapsing under the weight of the playoff pressure in the bubble to explode a 3-1 lead over the Nuggets. This year, the Clippers turned the tables.
Now they’re the ones making the historic comebacks, shattering a half-century of heartache, playoff meltdowns and cursed seasons on Friday when the Clippers won Game 6 at Staples Center to reach their first-ever final of the Western Conference.
And the Clippers are here in scorching Phoenix for Game 1 because they just refuse to fade no matter how hot things get. The Clippers are the first team in NBA history to overcome a 2-0 multi-playoff deficit in the same playoff series.
They missed the first two home games against Dallas in the first round and were down 30-11 in the first quarter of Game 3 in Dallas before somehow coming back and winning four of the remaining five games for win the series in seven.
The Clippers then lost the first two games of the second round in Utah before winning four in a row. Even more impressive was the fact that they won the last two games against Utah without Leonard, absent indefinitely with a sprained right knee.
Unlike previous playoffs, the Clippers made all the right adjustments under coach Tyronn Lue. While they were perhaps a few bad shots away from a 3-0 defeat at Dallas, Lue quickly inserted Nicolas Batum in place of Ivica Zubac to switch to a smaller, more switchable defensive formation against the star of the Mavericks Luka Doncic. The move transformed the series, forcing former Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle to try to counter with a pitched Boban Marjanovic.
And against Utah, the small formation of Lue still did wonders, this time neutralizing Rudy Gobert, triple defensive player of the year. With Leonard out, 6-foot-5 Terance Mann started off and scored 39 points in Game 6, triggering the biggest second-half comeback of a deciding game – erasing a 25-point deficit early in the third.
“It’s a whole new 2021 season,” said Reggie Jackson, who has been a clutch artist for the Clippers. “And so that’s all we care about is figuring out how we can be the best possible team this year… and then trying to be the last one standing.
“Fortunately, we gave ourselves a chance and we’re going to face a great team in Phoenix. But for us, we don’t want the journey to end here.”
– Ohm Youngmisuk
Serial keys: how tall can Ayton be and the Clippers bench question
The Clippers’ small-ball lineups present a different challenge for the Suns than in victories over the Lakers and Nuggets, who played conventionally with crosses on the court in the first two rounds. This created opportunities for Booker and Paul in the pick-and-roll, especially against the Denver drop covers. Paul averaged 1.15 points per direct-ball screen against the Nuggets, according to the Second Spectrum tracking, a rate that would have placed second among regulars during the regular season.
Assuming they stick with the formations that finished their streak against the Mavericks and Jazz without any players taller than the 6-foot-8 duo of Batum and Marcus Morris Sr., the Clippers will try to slow the attack down. Phoenix pick-and-roll with frequent changes. They traded more picks than any other team in the second-spectrum playoffs, and did so 43 percent of the time with Zubac on the bench. Meanwhile, opponents have switched to the Suns just 11% of the time so far.
Granted, Booker and Paul have the ability to play one-on-one against switches in the same way Donovan Mitchell did for Utah. Still, for the math to work in Phoenix’s favor, Ayton will need to make the Clippers pay for their lack of stature in the paint. He’s a taller man more skilled than the Clippers the Clippers have dealt with in the first two rounds, having crushed the Lakers for 21.7 PPG on 82% shots in the first three games of this series.
Ayton’s offensive rebound will be particularly important. He’s got nearly 1 in 10 Suns failure in the playoffs and may need to improve that against the Clippers.
Deandre Ayton applauds with Suns fans after helping the team secure a spot for the Western Conference Finals.
In another way, the conference final is a similar clash for Phoenix to its second-round victory over Denver: a shorthanded team trying to keep up with the Suns’ offense. That proved impossible for the Nuggets, who played the entire series without injured goaltender Jamal Murray, started it without starting winger Will Barton and had Michael Porter Jr. play with an injury to the back that limited it.
Much like Denver in the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Clippers were able to overcome Leonard’s loss for the final two games of the series with a knee injury thanks to unexpected contributions from role players. Jackson, who is currently working on a 50-40-90 playoff campaign, has been outstanding throughout the playoffs, and Mann has given the Clippers an incredible boost as Leonard’s replacement in the starting five. If not for Mann’s 39-point Game 6, the Clippers are likely gearing up for a deciding game in Salt Lake City right now.
As with the Nuggets, durability is the issue for the Clippers. Austin Rivers, who made 48% of his 3s in the first round, saw that number drop to 27% against Phoenix. Alternate goaltender Monte Morris went from 0.560 live shot to 0.482. Unless Kawhi can return to this series, the Clippers probably can’t afford a regression similar to Jackson and Mann.
Provided Paul is able to play, the Suns present fewer promising places to attack one-on-one than the original Jazz lineup, which was built around Gobert to clean up the mess in the paint – something which he found more difficult against five of the Clippers. off attack. Phoenix doesn’t depend as much on Ayton for rim protection and will depend more on Paul and Mikal Bridges containing their opponents in hopes of keeping the Clippers away from the paint.