PHOENIX – The dust of the regular season has settled, and playoff matchups have been set.
Among the most intriguing first-round series is the best-of-seven set between the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers. Both entered the season with legitimate championship aspirations. Both have never won a championship. Both have dealt with a plethora of injuries to star players this year. And both have valid reason to believe they can beat the other.
The fourth-seeded Suns will start with home-court advantage Sunday. Another advantage they have over the fifth-seeded Clippers is health. Trade deadline acquisition Kevin Durant, incumbent star Devin Booker and playmaking extraordinaire Chris Paul have all missed significant time with injury this season but enter the playoffs fully healthy.
“I think anytime you can go into the playoffs with a level of health that’s close to 100 percent, you feel good about that,” Suns coach Monty Williams said Sunday.
Added Durant: “I didn’t play enough ball this year, to my standards, so it’s good to get some extra games in the playoffs. Getting extra time to work on your individual game in this break in between the playoffs is always cool for me, so yeah I’m feeling good.”
The Clippers, on the other hand, don’t have the same luxury. All-Star guard Paul George is expected to be sidelined to start the series with a sprained knee, which has kept him out since March. Marcus Morris also missed the final game of the season with back issues but figures to factor into Los Angeles’s postseason plans. However, the perpetually injured Kawhi Leonard enters the series with full health and on a tear, averaging 24 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 51/40/84 shooting splits in his last 10 games.
The main concern for Los Angeles will be stopping the triumvirate of Durant, Booker and Paul. Lineups featuring the three players boast some of the best metrics of any lineup league-wide. According to Cleaning the Glass, Phoenix’s offense ranks in the 100th percentile in point differential at +17.1, the 99th percentile in effective field goal percentage at 61.3%, and the 96th percentile in points per 100 possessions at 122.2 with them on the court. Defensively they are just as good, ranking in the 99th percentile for both opponent points per 100 possessions (105.1 points) and opponent effective field goal percentage (47.9%).
“We know with KD, with Book, CP, they definitely execute,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said Sunday. “So, we have to be on tight with our game plan, understand what we’re trying to do, what we’re trying to take away.”
The attention created by those three gives other Suns players plenty of open opportunities to score. For Terrence Ross, the open looks are something he didn’t get many of the last seven seasons in Orlando, where his flamethrowing off the bench earned the nickname, “The Human Torch.”
“They’ll still send a lot of double teams to those guys and it’s going to open up a lot of backside threes and just open opportunities to get shots, so that’s what I’m focusing on and what I’m prepared for,” Ross said. “I’m definitely looking forward to playing off those two guys and how it’s going to help the team.”
Talk of impressive stats and floor spacing could become a moot point if the Suns fail to stop, or at least slow down Leonard. “The Claw” has consistently played his best in big moments like the playoffs. He rose to fame in the 2013 Finals with the San Antonio Spurs for his defensive effort against reigning MVP LeBron James, and won Finals MVP in 2014 with the Spurs and again in 2019 with the Toronto Raptors. One of the few players who can rival Durant’s abilities, Leonard was on his way to another historic playoffs in 2021 before a torn ACL became the only thing that could slow him down. How the Suns guard Leonard and late-season acquisition Russell Westbrook will be key to winning the series.
“Even when you know what they like to do (on offense) they’re very tough to guard,” Suns guard/forward Josh Okogie said of Leonard and Westbrook, two players he’s likely to spend heavy minutes guarding. “Making it as difficult as possible, as physical as possible … it’s very important. As long as we stick to our principles and have each other’s backs, we’ll be fine.”
The matchup also represents the first playoff series between Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder co-star Westbrook after the former bolted during free agency in 2016. The two have had a tenuous on-court relationship since. Many fans have noted the intensity Westbrook plays with when facing Durant, but the latter played it down Wednesday.
“I think Russ is competitive against any player he plays against; I don’t think it was specific to me,” Durant said of the perceived feud. “A lot of the fans and people that were watching, it was high intensity for them (too), but for us players it was just another game, it’s regularly scheduled programming, but Russ is that way against everybody and I don’t expect any different.”
Still, Durant relishes the opportunity to play against Westbrook and Leonard.
“It’s always good playing against Hall of Famers, that’s what you get with Russ or Kawhi out there,” Durant said. “Guys that you’ve seen grow up in the league and still playing elite ball in their 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th years, these dudes (are) getting old. To get the opportunity to compete against the best is always fun.”
Both teams face an uphill battle toward a title. In the NBA’s 75-year playoff history, only two teams seeded lower than third have won the championship: the 1969 Boston Celtics led by Bill Russell and John Havlicek, and the 1995 Houston Rockets featuring Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. If any team could do it, it just might be these Suns.