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WCF Game 4 Preview: Can the Suns respond to the Clippers ramped up effort?

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Phoenix Suns lead the LA Clippers 2-1 in the Western Conference Finals

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Los Angeles Clippers v Phoenix Suns - Game One Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

What: Phoenix Suns at LA Clippers, Game 4, Western Conference Finals (Suns lead 2-1)

When: Saturday, 6:00 PM

Where: Staples Center

Watch: Bally Sports Arizona and ESPN

Listen: 98.7 FM

Betting Line: Suns favored by 1 point as of Saturday morning... Check the latest odds here


So much for thoughts of the Suns running over the LA Clippers in this Western Conference Finals series the same way they ran over the Denver Nuggets a round before. Turns out the Clippers — even without the Kawhi Leonard — are damn good team, which the Utah Jazz would readily agree with.

The Suns are the team who prides itself on outworking and outplaying every other team, but on Thursday night the LA Clippers turned the tables. They turned a close game into a blowout in the second half with supreme effort, using their defense to generate offense.

Now the Phoenix Suns should be feeling a bit skeered. They may not yet actually truly feel fear of losing this series yet, but they SHOULD. Because if the Suns don’t start feeling that fear pretty soon, they’re gonna get run over by the Clippers like the Mavericks (lost 4 out of 5) and Jazz (lost 4 straight) were.

The Suns can draw on the fear they felt in the Lakers series. They got down 2-1 to the Lakers in the first three games of round one, with the same cadence that this series is going:

  • Game 1: win at home comfortably,
  • Game 2: play to a super-close finish without Chris Paul,
  • Game 3: get blasted on the road with the opponent using their crowd energy to do a bit of clowning in a runaway win.

That time, the Suns lost that middle game to the Lakers and with the fear of being down 1-2 they came out hot in game four. They had the lead 51-50 approaching halftime before Anthony Davis pulled his groin and dashed the Lakers hopes. Many will believe the Suns would have lost the series if AD had stayed healthy, despite the Suns winning the two games Chris Paul started healthy. We will never truly know what the outcome of a healthy Suns/Lakers series on both sides would have been, but that doesn’t matter. Bottom line: Suns won the series. End of story.

Now a new story is developing. This story has a super-confident Clippers team that came back to beat the Utah Jazz in four straight games after losing the first two. The last two wins were without Kawhi Leonard, so the Clippers know their current rotation can beat anyone.

The Suns will need to play harder and better against the Clippers than against any other team they’ve played this year.


Injured/out (primary rotation players only)

Suns — Cameron Payne (ankle) is PROBABLE; Abdel Nader (knee) is QUESTIONABLE and might be available for the first time in months

Clippers — Kawhi Leonard is OUT (knee, suspected ACL injury); day to day


Probable Starting Lineups


Keys to the game

Making shots

The Suns have had harder time making open threes in this series than the earlier rounds. They are shooting less than 30% on 26 open* threes per game this round, down from 38% on the year.

Against the Clippers, the Suns are getting the same open threes as the first two rounds (just under 26 per game) but making two fewer per game. Since an open three is an open three, you can expect the Suns shooting to normalize naturally because it’s not about the defense or the opponent. Odds are that the Suns will likely make 3-4 more threes per game the rest of this series if given the exact same number and type of shots.

Meanwhile, the Clippers are shooting the same this round on open threes as any round or regular season: taking about 30 open threes per game, converting at a 40% clip.

*nearest defender at least 4+ feet away

Getting more open shots

The Suns are generating only 25.7 open threes per game in the playoffs versus 31.1 per game in the regular season. Every team’s open shots go down in the playoffs due to the higher defensive effort level across the board, but the Suns have dropped the most among those West teams who made at least the second round. The Clippers are right about even, compared to regular season (30.3 open threes per game)

An open three-pointer is one of the highest-value shot attempts in the game (40% conversion rate * 3 points = 1.2 points per attempt).

A dunk attempt is worth more, of course: 95% conversion * 2 points = 1.9 points, and in a game with roughly equal number of shot attempts you would win by just dunking the ball every time, no matter how many times the opponent takes a three. But opponents know this and they don’t let you dunk the ball. The average number of dunks per game in the NBA is less than 4 per team per game.

Make more of your best shots

The Suns scored only 8 points on midrange shots in Thursday’s loss. That’s it.

For the playoffs, they lead the Western Conference teams by taking 15.8 midrange shots per game, making 42% of them for just over 13 points per game. On Thursday, they were just 4 for 16 in the midrange (25%).

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but add the missed middys to the missed open threes and you’re looking at a lot of shots missed that they normally make. Again, these two items aren’t about the Clippers defense. We’re talking shots the Suns can and should make.


Prediction

Well, one betting line has the Suns as a one point favorite, but let’s hope the margin is wider than that.

The Suns are the best road team in the NBA this year, and have already closed out both playoff series on the road. A win here won’t close out the series, but would give the Suns a 3-1 series lead in the first-to-four series.