The Suns are making their first Western Conference Finals berth since 2009-10, when they last made the postseason. Phoenix is 2-7 all-time in conference finals appearances and has not won a Conference Finals since 1992-93, when beat the Seattle SuperSonics but then lost to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in six games in the NBA Finals
The Clippers are making their first conference finals appearance in franchise history. They recently defeated the first-seeded Utah Jazz in six games, capped off by a 25-point second half comeback in Game 6 on Friday when forward Terance Mann erupted for 39 points on 15-of-21 shooting and 7-of-10 from 3-point range.
Los Angeles is the lone contender remaining that the Suns struggled with this season, as it won the season series two games to one. On Saturday, Phoenix coach Monty Williams said his team will have to be especially cognizant of its team defense against the Clippers, which employed a smaller lineup against the Jazz to force starting center Rudy Gobert in rotation and open driving lanes and shooters.
The Clippers also have versatile personnel and can switch effectively on defense, which could be a challenge for the Suns in their pick-and-roll offense.
“I think the key for us is to play the way we play,” Williams said. “We’re a point-five team, we play ‘paint to great.’ You can’t hold the ball against a switching defense. The biggest key is getting stops so you can play in transition and get out and run before they can set up their defense.”
Ahead of Sunday’s series opener, we caught up with Clips Nation beat writer Blake Harris to break down the latest on the Clippers, including the health of starting forward Kawhi Leonard, potential personnel adjustments and what to expect out of Paul George in this series.
Here are his answers below.
1. What were your main takeaways from the Clippers’ series win against the Jazz?
My main takeaway was that this team might be better than we all initially thought. Every player stepped up and fit into their role perfectly. For years, the Clippers have always had a lot of really good depth, but I don’t think their pieces have ever fit this well together. That’s a major credit to (coach) Ty Lue and how he’s adjusted his lineups during this postseason.
2. We saw Kawhi Leonard is out for Game 1 due to his sprained right knee and that his status for the rest of the Western Conference Finals is uncertain. How did his absence affect the Clippers last round, and do you anticipate he will return at any point in this series?
I’m of course going to be super optimistic and say he returns this round. However, I don’t think it’s likely. The fact he hasn’t gotten surgery is certainly great news, but his injury doesn’t appear to be one where you’ll miss only a week. Then again, it’s Kawhi and the Clippers, so who really knows what the true severity of the injury is, as they haven’t really told us much over these last few days what’s really happening. In regards to his impact, the Clippers appeared to be just fine without him during the last round. Obviously they’re much better with him, but they showed that they can win without him. With that being said, I hope he’s able to return at some point.
3. Terance Mann exploded for 39 points during Game 6 of the Utah series after exceeding 20 points just three times during the regular season. Whether it’s him or someone else, who do you expect in this series to step up if Leonard is out long-term?
I think that it was a coming out party for Mann. Clippers fans knew of his potential, but what he did the other night was truly special. I think some players who will step up are some guys who have already been solid this postseason, but they’ll still play huge roles. I think Marcus Morris Sr. and Reggie Jackson will be huge for LA. However, if you want two wildcards, keep an eye on Luke Kennard and Ivica Zubac. I wouldn’t be shocked if either one of those guys has a game or two that helps the Clippers pull out a W.
4. Paul George has received a lot of criticism in his recent postseason career but played very well the last five games of the Jazz series. What are you anticipating from him in these conference finals?
I’m expecting greatness. I’m expecting the REAL Playoff P. This entire postseason he’s been fantastic, especially his last few games. With Kawhi out, he knows he’ll have to step up and carry an extra load. He’s shown he’s up to the task, and I think all the criticism he’s gotten over the last year has fueled him and motivated him.
5. Tyronn Lue has pushed the Clippers to their first conference finals in their 50-year history. What are his biggest strengths as a coach, and how has his style differed from Doc Rivers last season?
The biggest thing I’ve noticed is his ability to adjust as the games go on. Doc would just stick to his same lineup, regardless of how the matchup looked or what was happening. Ty would see how things would shape out over a game or two and then adjust to the Clippers’ strength. For example, there’s zero chance Doc would have started Mann and trusted him enough like we’ve seen. Whereas, Ty knows what Mann brings and throws him out there.
6. Who wins this series, and in how many games?
I think we’re in store for a fantastic series. I’m bummed that we’re missing guys like Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard, as I’d like to see this matchup at full strength for both teams. I’m going to ride with this Clippers team to the finals. They’ve already made history, why not a little more? I’m going to go with the Clippers in 6.