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Preview: Suns return from All-Star break against new-look Clippers

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This final stretch will be an all-important evaluation period for Phoenix’s young core.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

What: Phoenix Suns host Los Angeles Clippers

When: 7 pm AZ time

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena

Watch: Fox Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM


Probable starters:

Suns - Elfrid Payton, Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender

Clippers - Milos Teodosic, Austin Rivers, Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, DeAndre Jordan

Clippers

OffRtg = 107 (T11th), DefRtg = 107.2 (T19th), NetRtg = -0.2 (16th)

After trading away Blake Griffin a few weeks before this year’s trade deadline, it signaled a reshuffling of the decks for the Clippers. After acquiring only Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovich, Avery Bradley, and a 1st + 2nd round pick, the Clippers cleared cap space to make long-term signings in either of the next three summers.

If Jerry West wanted flexibility, he definitely achieved it. Now, it looks as if Jordan might be the next one to leave after they signed Williams to a 3-year extension last month.

Even though Los Angeles might be going through a slight rebuild once this summer arrives, this roster is still yielding surprising results.

The guard play from Teodosic and Williams has been the driving force for them all season long. A bigger guard like Payton should have a favorable matchup against Teodosic, but he will have to be wary of the passing lanes before anything else.

Outside of Williams having the capabilities of dropping 50 off the bench any given night alongside when Gallinari and others getting hot from the outside, this Clippers team has nothing explosive offensively but can hang with anybody as we saw last night against Golden State.

If Phoenix is able to contain Williams and the three-point line, Phoenix might be able to pull off the surprise victory but they have been unable to really stop anyone in that department yet.

Suns

OffRtg = 102.2 (29th), DefRtg = 110.3 (29th), NetRtg = -8.1 (29th)

The Suns gave a glimpse into what the final 23 games might look like with a backcourt of Payton and Booker, but obviously not on a nightly basis. Payton’s patience has been a breath of fresh air to an offense in need of a rejuvenation.

Now, how will it look going against the league’s best over this final stretch? Phoenix has the toughest schedule the rest of the way.

When looking at specific matchups tonight that Phoenix should take advantage of, one obvious one stands out as it should each game: Feed Booker. As I mentioned in my five areas I’m watching for after the All-Star break, Booker being more aggressive from beyond the arc was one I was very focused on.

Even if you take out his 70 point game in Boston, Booker in 10 career games where he attempts 10 or more 3s has averaged over 30. That right there is the key to unlocking his full artillery as an elite offensive weapon. However, Phoenix has been unable to find him the backcourt partner to do so.

Is Payton the answer or will it be either Luka Doncic or Trae Young in this year’s loaded lottery of possible franchise-altering prospects? We will the know the likely answer with Payton by mid-April, but that fate won’t be known until May 15 once those lottery balls are unveiled.

For a team in a desperate state to find a co-star to go alongside Booker, they need to finally get lucky in the lottery after their initial 50 years.

As far as lineup notes go for tonight’s matchup against Los Angeles, Tyson Chandler is likely out with neck soreness and Ulis is a likely game-time decision.

I pegged Bender and Chriss to start together if Chandler is out because it seems as if Alex Len is not in their plans anymore. Also, the main point here is that general manager Ryan McDonough mentioned on 98.7 during Newsmakers Week that these last 23 bouts will be an evaluation period for all of the young core.

If that’s the case, we need to see the Chriss-Bender frontcourt starting frontcourt trial run the rest of the way. Their net rating together has been putrid, so it might even help the Suns in the tank race anyways.

It’s looking more and more like the Suns will have to make a decision between Chriss and Bender down the line, and it might be coming way sooner than we all imagined.

Prediction

After seeing the Clippers go toe-to-toe with the defending champions last night, I have to go with them. Instead of being pounded into the court by 46, Los Angeles hung around until the very end.

I do sense Booker, Payton, and Jackson amassing strong performances but it won’t be enough in the end.

For them, it’s all about getting either Deandre Ayton or Doncic to help bring this roster closer towards becoming a playoff contender in 2019.

Clippers 119, Suns 109