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WCF Suns-Clippers G1 Preview: Booker, Ayton need to carry Suns in Paul’s absence

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All eyes will be on Phoenix today as the Western Conference Finals kick off

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

What: Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix Suns

When: Sunday at 12:30 PM ***Mid-day start!***

Where: Phoenix Suns Arena

Watch: Bally Sports Arizona and ABC

Listen: 98.7 FM


IT’S GAME DAY!

Finally, Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference Finals will tip off TODAY at (or soon after) 12:30 PM. Happy Fathers Day to all the folks out there who have an extra reason to get three hours dedicated to Phoenix Suns basketball.

The Clippers franchise is 50 years old and the Suns franchise is 54 years old, but this is only the second time these will face off in the NBA Playoffs. That was in 2006, when the Suns beat the Clippers in seven games, highlighted by Raja Bell’s buzzer-beating, game-tying three-pointer to give the Suns the pivotal 3-2 lead in the series.


How they got here

The Clippers ousted the top-seeded Utah Jazz with a five-out, three-point shooting offense that made 73% of their three-pointers in the second half of Game 6 to overcome a 26-point deficit and win handily, 131-119. The Clippers were led in that game by Terance Mann (career-high 39 points), Paul George (28/9/7) and Reggie Jackson (27/10).

The Clippers won their series, four games to two, despite losing the first two in Utah and losing their best player, Kawhi Leonard after Game 4. They morphed completely into a small-ball lineup that switches on every possession defensively and runs a five-out offense (meaning, no players inside the three-point line without the ball).

The Suns beat the defending champions, Los Angeles Lakers, in the first round, 4-2 and then wiped the floor quickly with the Denver Nuggets, sweeping them 4-0.

The Suns have the league’s most sophisticated pick-and-roll offense and a stingy defense that ranks second-best in the playoffs.


Injured/Out

Clippers: Kawhi Leonard OUT (knee sprain, will miss at least Game 1 and 2)

Suns: Chris Paul OUT (health and safety protocols, will miss at least Game 1)


Projected Starting Lineups

The Clippers are not playing a typical center. Nicolas Batum is 6’8” and 200 pounds to Ayton’s 6’11’ and 250 pounds. Batum won’t play like a center though — he will spend the whole game spotted out on the three-point line, pulling Ayton out of the paint.


Chris Paul is OUT

Suns point guard, Chris Paul, who has started 80 of 82 games this year, finished 5th in the league MVP voting, made the All-Star and All-NBA teams, and scored 37 points last Sunday in the close-out game in Denver, is out indefinitely due to a positive COVID test last Monday.

League rules state that a player who tests positive must go into quarantine and cannot rejoin the team until one of two things happens: (a) wait 10 days and be symptom-free for at least the last 24 hours or (b) test negative on a PCP test on consecutive days. Since Paul is not yet cleared, and it’s reasonably certain he’s been taking tests daily, you can assume he’s come back positive for COVID consistently since last Monday (7 days ago).

Paul and most of his teammates were vaccinated against COVID-19 in February when the vaccination program in Arizona was opened up to all citizens aged 16 and older. In rare cases, a person can still contract the virus, and that’s what happened here. The rumors are that Paul is symptom-free, meaning the worst case is waiting 10 days for clearance — which lines up with Game 3 in Los Angeles on Thursday. Hopefully, he will test negative twice before then, so that’s why he is considered ‘day to day’.

In the meantime, Cameron Payne will get the bulk of the point guard minutes.

“He’s not scared of the moment,” said Devin Booker on Saturday, talking about Payne. “Usually when somebody is put in that situation they become a little hesitant, but that’s not how he plays at all.”

Payne was great as a fill-in for Paul in the first round when Paul was suffering from a shoulder injury. He averaged 12.5 points and 3 assists in 23 minutes per game in that series, including 19 points in 30 minutes in Game 2 when Paul was especially injured. Usually, Payne gives an 8/2/2 line in 16 minutes per game backing up Paul.

“He’s not scared to make mistakes out there.” Devin Booker said of Payne. “That’s the type of confidence you need to win these type of basketball games. Everybody on the court, one through five, has to be a threat and he’s definitely a threat.”


Suns key players in Game 1

Cameron Payne is obviously a key player, especially while Chris Paul is sidelined, but the Suns will rely on All-Star Devin Booker to carry most of the Paul-less offensive load. Booker has been double and triple-teamed his whole career, so he knows how to work around being the center of attention. In the playoffs, he has increased his production across the board with 27.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists in a team-high 39.9 minutes per game.

Defensively, the Suns have a lot of players who will need to step up and contest the Clippers three-point shooters tightly, while not letting them attack the unprotected rim on closeouts.

The most pivotal defensive player will be big center Deandre Ayton. This opponent could be Ayton’s nightmare. Just like the Clippers did to DPOY Rudy Gobert in the last round, Ayton will be schemed onto an island on the defensive perimeter when he’s on the floor. The Clippers made 12 of 15 second half shots against Gobert during their big comeback in Game 6 because he was stuck in no-mans land on defense — he failed to contest threes or protect the rim because there was too much space to cover. Ayton’s going to have to be better than Gobert, or Monty Williams will have to adjust by benching him for a wing.

The wings are the other key group. Cameron Johnson, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Torrey Craig will have to outplay the group of Mann, Morris and Batum. Our own John Voita covered this yesterday.

Devin Booker is especially counting on Jae Crowder to help them stay the course and stay locked in.

“He’s that grit for us,” Booker said of Crowder. “He’s that toughness.”


Clippers key players in Game 1

The Clips can improve their chances of winning the series by taking Game 1 today while the Suns are without CP. They will have to do it without Kawhi Leonard, but they beat Utah twice in a row without him so they’re highly confident.

Paul George will need to channel Kevin Durant, which he’s done very well against the Suns this year. PG has made 60% of this threes, and averaged 32 points per game in three games against the Suns in the regular season. He will need to meet or exceed the 32 points, while probably filling the stat sheet with assists, rebounds.

On the other hand, if Terance Mann and Reggie Jackson Jr. combine for another 50+ points like they did against the Jazz, the Suns are likely in trouble. The Clippers need all of their shooters to step up and make 40+% of their threes and hoist them at a high clip.

Another key player is Marcus Morris Sr. You remember him? From back in the day he wasn’t a Sr.? I remember him too. I’m sure Suns fans at the arena will let him have it with boos, just like they did his brother in Round 1. If Morris approximates a 20+ points per game player in this round, the Clippers will be in good shape. I need the fans to help make sure that doesn’t happen!


Prediction

Hey the models are finally predicting the Suns will win the whole thing!

Take it with a big grain of salt, since these numbers change every day. But it’s nice to see, anyway!

Let’s go ahead and predict a Suns win today too...

Suns win, 125-115