Put me in the group of folks stoked about the way the #5-seed turned out for the Phoenix Suns. Between the three possibilities on finale day of matching up against the Golden State Warriors, New Orleans Pelicans, and LA Clippers, this is the one that I thought gave Phoenix the easiest path to advancing.
There’s obviously a little bit of bad blood involved when these two face off largely due to the 2021 playoff series that Phoenix won in six games, but a lot has changed since then; swap Paul George out for Kawhi Leonard (though George may still play part of the way through this series), Pat Beverley out for Russell Westbrook, and Mikal Bridges/Cam Johnson/Jae Crowder out for Kevin Durant.
These changes are obviously a little more short-term than just “over the last two years since the last playoff meeting,” which is why it’s not all that beneficial to look back at the regular season series in 2022-23.
The Suns won 2-1 in the games that they tried in and nearly still won when they didn’t. Both of the wins came before the New Year and the loss came when the Suns roster was in limbo between the trades and Durant’s debut on Feb. 16. Phoenix held LA to 95 points in both wins with a margin of victory of 15+ each time while the sole loss came by nine.
Given an especially foggy regular season series, we get a relatively clean slate when previewing the matchup, which is exciting for the discourse. So while the Suns are likely going to approach this series like they’re going to play their game and do what they’re good at, there’s always the gameplan for the other team as well. Here are what I consider to be the most important ways to handle the official #5-seed Clippers:
1. Make Kawhi work on defense
There aren’t many ways to attack seven-time All-Defensive selection Kawhi Leonard, which is why it’s important to pick your spots against him. One thing that does stand out though is that Leonard struggles much more when he’s involved in actions.
Per Synergy, the weakest area of Leonard’s defense is on handoffs, where he gives up 1.209 points per possession (PPP), the worst type of play for him by 0.2 PPP (a pretty massive gap), ranking in just the 14th percentile in the league. Defending handoffs requires quick decision-making and oftentimes quick change of direction as well, so it forces Leonard to exert more energy on that end than he would otherwise. Defending off screens is his next worse play type by PPP relativity, ranking in the 51st percentile, and similar principles apply there.
It won’t surprise you to hear that teams are only scoring 0.769 PPP in isolation against Leonard; that’s one of the spots you won’t want to pick and teams aren’t with him defending just 26 total isolations in 52 games this season. But if you can put enough pressure on him in the early-goings of the game, maybe isolations in the endgame become a little easier than they would be otherwise. Plus he’d be a little more tired offensively, especially without his star running mate, Paul George.
2. No more no-show on Russ threes
I’m just as guilty as anyone of doing so, but the time is now up for making jokes about Russell Westbrook and his shooting (or shooting struggles). Don’t be fooled by the 31.1% he’s shooting from distance over this entire season, because that’s weighed down heavily by a 29.6% stretch over 52 games when he was still with the Lakers. In 21 games since joining the Clippers, that’s jumped up to 35.6%, which would be a career high over a full season.
The shot profile is a little different now than most of Westbrook’s career with 57 of his 73 total three-point attempts coming off the catch, but his pull-ups are pretty lethal when he does take them, 7-12 (58.3%). And while dealing with small sample sizes, he’s also 6-9 (66.7%) after at least three dribbles before shooting as opposed to 20-63 (31.7%) otherwise.
So how do the Suns deal with decent-shooting-Westbrook? You have to show him just any level of defense. He’s attempted just 11 threes with less than six feet of space but is 38.7% when he does. Clippers head coach Ty Lue may have straight up told him that the green light is only there if the defense gives it to him. So if you’re the Suns, don’t give it to him.
3. Close closeouts on Batum
This one’s pretty similar to the Westbrook point. Only 12 of Nic Batum’s 317 attempted threes this season have come following any amount of dribbling. He shot 5-23 (21.7%) on threes with less than four feet of space but shot 119-294 (40.5%) with at least four feet.
A hard closeout forcing a dribble would more than likely force a pass out, which is usually a better option for the Suns because a catch-and-shoot three from Batum produces roughly 1.2 points per possession which roughly equals 60% shooting from inside the arc.
This is a series I think Phoenix wins going away, regardless of what does or doesn’t happen with George. Unless every single shooter gets hot — a la Dallas series a year ago — I don’t think the Clippers have the juice to keep up with a team benefitting from the best one-two punch in basketball.
Suns in 5.