The table is set for an explosive Western Conference Finals series between the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Clippers.
The second-seeded Suns easily dispatched the Nikola Jokic-led Denver Nuggets after four games. It’s about time Chris Paul made a return to the West finals and this might finally be his shot in grabbing a ring.
The Clippers, meanwhile, are on the heels of an inspiring 25-point comeback to take down the Utah Jazz. This is the franchise’s first time to enter the conference finals, and you can bet that they’re hungry to make an NBA Finals appearance especially with a guy like Paul George leading the charge. There were some doubts about George’s ability to lead the team into a deep playoff run after an unexpected exit in the bubble last year, but he has been on a revenge tour mission this season.
Most compelling storyline
Chris Paul spent six years of his career trying to win a title with the Clippers. He revitalized the city, turning the franchise from a cellar-dweller to a playoff contender. Alongside Blake Griffin, they captured the league with their electrifying play and made their own brand of showtime in Los Angeles called “Lob City.”
And now, Paul and the Clippers must go through each other for a chance to enter the NBA Finals, a place neither has gone to before. Both came incredibly close in 2015 when they had a 3-1 series lead over the Houston Rockets before eventually collapsing.
Paul and the Clippers have a shared history together, but individually, they have their own painful past to overcome.
This year, fate has not been kind to both as well. Paul is out for Game 1 due to health and safety protocols, while Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers’ best player, is out indefinitely because of a knee sprain.
Who will the basketball gods favor? Will the Clippers, who have endured so much ridicule and loss throughout their 51-year history, have the upper hand? Or will CP3 finally get over the hump and get to the promised land?
Keep an eye on…
If there’s one thing that’s abundantly clear, it’s that a shootout is expected to take place in this series. Their rosters are stacked with shooters, with Devin Booker leading one side and Paul George manning the other.
The amount of talent, coupled with excellent coaching, has been a recipe for success for both of these teams in the playoffs. However, it’s the ability to replicate what they accomplished in the earlier stages that may be in question for the two squads.
Both are riding on a winning streak – four games in a row for the Clippers and seven for the Suns – coming into the finals. Who’s going to remain hot and who’s going to fizzle?
These teams are scary when they start getting streaky. They can cut down large deficits once they get going, especially from downtown. Therefore, it’s absolutely crucial for them to stop the other from getting into the groove. Both teams can’t let the other heat up and get confident. It’s obvious that the Suns and the Clippers have the ability to make shots, but the ability to stop the other may be the determining factor.
The Clippers’ deep bench showed up when they had to, winning games even when their stars were struggling. Terance Mann and Reggie Jackson, in particular, had phenomenal performances that allowed them to take the lead and the series against Utah even without Leonard on the court.
Mann showed that he’s a superstar in the making with his Game 6 outburst in the semis, exploding for 39 points to help the Clippers clinch the series. He has been crucial to his team's postseason success even when he doesn’t fill the stat sheet.
“He’s one of the best young players I’ve been around,” George said about Mann. “He reminds me a lot of myself. He puts the work in.”
Phoenix also hopes to find the same spark off the bench. The Suns’ offense will be put under a microscope, especially with Paul unavailable. While CP3’s scoring made a huge impact in their sweep of the Nuggets, it was his ability to get everyone involved that set the tone and put them in the right direction. His experience can help this young team take it all the way, but without him, Phoenix needs to find someone to fill his shoes until he returns.
The spotlight will be on Booker, but it's Cameron Payne who needs to step up to the challenge of orchestrating the offense. Payne has shown glimpses of what he can do in the earlier part of the postseason, but the question is whether or not he can sustain it. How Payne holds the fort without Paul will be critical for the Suns in the series.
The Suns have been rolling in the playoffs. Even though they faced a hobbled LA Lakers and a Nuggets team without Jamal Murray, those were still top-tier teams who previously had more playoff experience than the Suns.
Now, Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and the rest of the young Phoenix players are battle-tested. Losing Paul for a game (or two) will definitely be a huge loss. He’s been the engine that has kept the Suns running smoothly.
It will inevitably boil down to Booker elevating his game, with the Clippers’ defense definitely zoning in on him. After posting averages of 25.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 4.5 assists against the Nuggets, Booker will have to follow his own mantra and be legendary.
For LA, it’s no question that Paul George will have to play at a superstar-in-the-playoffs level. He needs to carry the Clippers, who recorded the second-most efficient offense in a series in the last 25 years, putting up 127.7 points per 100 possessions in six games versus the Jazz. The Clippers really took apart a team with three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert as their anchor. It will now be a huge task going up against the Suns who have the second-best defense in the playoffs with a 104.7 rating.
All that being said, George and the Clippers will surely miss the presence of Leonard sooner than later. They have proven that they can ride out a few games without their best player, but the playoffs always have a knack for exposing your weakness at the worst possible time. The Clippers will have to be close to perfect every game if they want to have a chance against the Suns.