We’re walking with a little pep in our step right now. How long has it been since the Phoenix Suns have been in a stressful basketball situation and performed? Since Iron Man 2 and Russell Crowe as Robin Hood were in theaters. Yeah, that long.
The Suns, brought to the bubble to play the role of doormat, are refusing to comply. Following victories over the Washington Wizards and Dallas Mavericks, the Suns find themselves closing in on the 8th seed vs. 9th seed play-in game for the final spot in the Western Conference.
Next up on the Bubble Boyz Tour? The Los Angeles Clippers. The narrative versus the Clips, which are the best team by record on the Suns’ bubble schedule, mirrors that of David and Goliath. They carry a record of 45-21. They posses two of the top ten players in the NBA. The Suns on the other hand are 28-39.
No one ever asked Goliath what he thought of that fight, did they? History is written by the winners, I guess. The Suns JAM Session Podcast did just that for our most recent pod, reaching out to Sabreena Merchant, editor in chief of the SB Nation site Clips Nation, to see the world through the eyes of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Do Clippers fans have a nickname for the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George duo?
Clearly I’m asking Goliath the tough questions right off the bat. But I’m curious. When you have two superstars like Leonard and George, sometimes nicknames organically occur.
Sabreena informed us, “Not really. There’s like a 213 connection because Kawhi is #2 and and PG is #13 and 213 is an LA area code. Kawhi sort of has his own set of nicknames, ‘The Fun Guy’, ‘War Man’, ‘Claw’. And PG is just PG, I guess.”
I proposed the “Leo and Geo” moniker I bestowed upon them early in the season. It rhymes. It has the first three letters of their last names. It’s cool, right? “I can’t say it’s gonna hold,” Sabrenna responded.
Note to self: the creation of nicknames are not my strong suit.
How do you view these 8 games in the bubble?
Okay, now we’re asking the questions Bright Siders what to know the answers to.
The Clippers are currently the #2 in the Western Conference and regarded by many as the primary obstacle between the Lakers and an NBA Finals appearance. How do you approach games that may not matter playoff seeding?
“It’s pretty much just like let’s use these 8 games the ramp up nicely to the playoffs, bring back everybody healthy,” Merchant stated, adding, “There’s a lot of continuity issues right now. For now, it’s just let’s get everybody on the same page, let’s get the starting lineup some reps, and we’re going to be fine when the first round starts.”
“Leo and Geo” (oh, I’m making it happen) have played a total of 34 games together out of the Clippers 66. The team is 25-9 in those games. The Clippers are 20-12 in games in which they were missing one or both of their stars. The priority for the Clippers isn’t winning these games, it’s getting healthy.
Sabreena explained how her bubble experience began as the Clippers lost to the Lakers 103-101, emphasizing the need for a consistent lineup.
“Well I’m sure everyone would've liked to win the game against the Lakers,” Merchant said. “Just a not fun way to start the 8 games off but not holey unexpected considering Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell still out, Patrick Beverley on a minutes restriction, (that) wasn’t ever actually specified. You don’t have three of your theoretical closing five. Things are not going to go they way they think they’re going to go.”
Getting that starting five humming, that is Goliath’s goal.
Merchant added, “I don’t think the Clippers particularly care too much about how these 8 games because there’s not a whole lot of risk of falling into the 4 seed and in terms of 2/3, there’s no home court.”
Who would you rather the Clippers play in the first round?
Ah, the conversations that playoff teams get to have. Remember those?
Sitting at #2 allows you a luxury to watch the standings below you, fabricating matchup scenarios that would benefit your tea. Who would you rather play in that first round: the Mavericks, the Rockets, or the Thunder?
“So I think the Rockets are the trickiest matchup because they do have some history beating the Clippers...they’ve done it twice this year,” Sabreena said. “I would say OKC is probably the easiest matchup. Just because there are three guard lineup is going to be toast against the Clippers.”
“And there’s like some fun little interpersonal dynamics,” she added, “because obviously Chris Paul is like ‘Mr. Clipper’ and Paul George just came from there and Shai is on the Thunder now, Galli (Danilo Gallinari) is on the Thunder now, like, there’s there’s all these, like, little storylines you could dive yourself into that just will not make any difference if the Clippers can run.”
Who is the one guy not named ‘Kawhi’ or ‘George’ we should be watching?
The relationship between the Suns and the Clippers is close. They play in the same division, which equates to four games against each other per season. There is not much, at least in my opinion, that we do not know about our Pacific Division foe.
Conversely, having an intimate knowledge of a team provides perspective others might not see. When we asked Sabreena who this was on the Clippers, her response was Ivica Zubac.
“He’s just very quietly been an excellent defensive center all year. He’s gotten much better at staying vertical and not fouling. And he had this thing last year...with his hands and he couldn’t quite finish around the basket.” She noted his growth in this area, “That’s no longer an issue. He’s become a really nice pick and roll partner with Kawhi Leonard. And obviously, like if you’re playing against the Suns, a strong defense of five is kind of necessary because of Deandre Ayton.”
Keep your eye on the Zubac vs. Ayton matchup on Tuesday. Zubac, who arrived to the bubble late following a positive COVID-19 test, is “still struggling to get his wind back.”
Per BBall-Index.com, Zubac contests 48% of the shots at the rim (97%tile), has 1.8 blocks-per-75-possessions (90%tile), and 2.5 adjusted rim points saved per 36 possessions (100%tile). He is tough around the rim.
“Outside of the Clippers fan community, he doesn’t get a ton of credit.”
Prediction for the game?
Time to place your bets! When asking Sabreena what the spread on the game should be, she responded with, “I would say this is in the 18-point range.”
Can you blame Goliath for being so confident? They are coming off a 23-point drubbing of the New Orleans Pelicans. And the Suns are the #13 seed.
Merchant has higher aspirations. Her team has a chance at a ring. If they makes the finals, if they win the Battle of LA, “If anyone outside of Milwaukee comes out of the east the Clippers will beat them.”
Grab a handful of rocks and your slingshot, David. It’s going to be a battle.
Thank you to Sabreena Merchant for joining the Suns JAM Session Podcast and providing us a look at your team. It truly was a pleasure.
To hear the entire interview (beginning around the 41 minute mark):