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Preview: Suns closing in on No. 1 seed, face Clips in LA on back to back

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This is what the NBA stretch run feels like.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix Suns Billy Hardiman-USA TODAY Sports

What: Phoenix Suns (36-14) at Los Angeles Clippers (34-18)

When: Wednesday, 7:00 p.m. MST

Where: Phoenix, Arizona

Watch: Bally Sports Arizona, TNT

Listen: 98.7 FM

Betting line: The Suns are giving 6 points on the road. The money line is Clips -240.


If you’re like me, you’re still hungover from the thrill of last night’s Suns-Jazz classic, with the memories of Deandre Ayton battling Rudy Gobert, late clutch buckets from Chris Paul and Devin Booker, and the overall resiliency and adaptability of the Suns lingering in your head as you powered through a couple cups of coffee before work this morning.

But there’s still work to do. With the victory, the Suns moved within one game in the loss column of Utah for the top seed in the Western Conference and the top overall seed in the playoffs. That’s oh so close, but it will only matter if the Suns can claim the No. 1 seed by the end of the season. Games like this one against Los Angeles will matter enormously in that battle.

Injury report

Phoenix Suns: Abdel Nader remains out

Los Angeles Clippers: Serge Ibaka remains out with a back injury

Projected starting lineups

Suns: Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Deandre Ayton

Clippers: Patrick Beverley, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris, Ivica Zubac


Phoenix Suns

36-14; No. 2 in the Western Conference

116.7 ORtg (7th) - 109.2 DRtg (5th) = plus-7.4 netRtg (2nd)

No matter how you felt going into last night’s epic against Utah, you had to be a little more confident coming out. The Suns won’t get the benefit of the doubt like the Lakers, Heat or even the Nuggets get, because they haven’t been there before. As Kellan Olson recently wrote at Arizona Sports, the Suns would be among the youngest groups ever to make a deep playoff run, should they actually pull that off. In the meantime, big wins like the one over Utah (and ideally another against the Clippers tonight) prove the Suns’ legitimacy.

Fortunately, Los Angeles is another team the Suns have played well against in the past. They don’t quite have a Booker stopper, as they’ve been hesitant to put Leonard on him in the regular season and George isn’t as strong as you’d like for someone guarding Booker. The last time these squads faced off back in January, things got very chippy and the Clips won by five in the Suns’ building.

That game saw George go off for 39 as part of his early-season explosion, which brings us to maybe the biggest key of the game tonight for Phoenix. While they lived through Bridges being in foul trouble on Wednesday, it won’t be so easy against the Clippers. To contain LA’s star wings, the Suns will need Bridges to stay on the court and be at his best.

If they can get a better night out of him, another two-way contribution from Cameron Johnson and more winning plays from Crowder, they should be able to win their eighth straight.

Los Angeles Clippers

34-18; No. 3 in the Western Conference

119.0 ORtg (3rd) - 112.2 DRtg (11th) = plus-6.9 netRtg (3rd)

A few things will be different from the last time the Clippers faced the Suns, mostly in terms of personnel and rotation for LA. The team still can’t seem to settle on a role for Luke Kennard, though he is liable to go off on any given night and is at least playing now. Then there is Rajon Rondo, acquired from Atlanta at the deadline, who should stabilize the Clippers’ offense when the stars need a break. And most recently, LA signed DeMarcus Cousins, who may or may not actually help them win games but is a microwave scorer who can mess around and get 30. But most importantly for the Clippers, George is healthy again and is coming off a 36-point outburst against Portland earlier this week.

After last night’s game, Paul told media that the Suns needed a big game where everyone played heavy minutes and they got punched in the mouth. Utah gave it to them.

If they’re going to get another one tonight in LA, it probably looks something like George and Leonard simultaneously going off and igniting the Clippers’ offense in a shootout-type game. The Suns beat the Jazz by turning the game into a slugfest. Can they do that against a healthy, rolling Clippers team that has won eight of its past ten?

Prediction

What’s the fun of predicting a loss? Despite just seeing a George/Leonard bomb go off against the Trail Blazers, I still feel confident the Suns can best LA tonight. Missing Ibaka could hurt the Clips’ ability to spread the Suns out, and I don’t think they’re comfortable with Morris at center.

That, coupled with what should be another aggressive night from Paul and Booker makes me feel good about the Suns’ IQ and role players being able to outmatch the secondary Clippers pieces.

Suns 125, Clippers 120