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Playoff Preview: Suns vs. Clippers — strengths, weaknesses, keys to the series for both sides

Schedule, TV, odds, strengths, weaknesses both teams

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Clippers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Who: Los Angeles Clippers (5th seed) vs. Phoenix Suns (4th seed)

What: Round One, 2023 NBA Playoffs (best of seven)

Where: Footprint Center, Phoenix, AZ for Game 1

When: Sunday at 5:00PM for Game 1

Watch: Bally Sports Arizona, TNT

Listen: 98.7 FM

DraftKings Betting Line: Suns favored by 7 points in G1; Favored to win series -500 odds

For the first time in four years, a Kevin Durant team will face a Kawhi Leonard team in the NBA playoffs. They last squared off when Leonard’s Toronto Raptors beat the Durant’s Golden State Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals. But Durant hardly played in that one, having injured his calf in an earlier round and Kawhi’s Raptors handled the Warriors easily.

Before that it was seven years before that, in the 2016 Western Conference SemiFinals when Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder beat Kawhi’s 67-win San Antonio Spurs in six games.

Let’s just say it’s been a long time.

Now, they expect to face off in the first round of the 2023 Playoffs, each hoping for a long playoff run neither has enjoyed since one or both of them appeared in 6 of 8 NBA Finals from 2012 to 2019. They have dealt with injuries — either to themselves or their teammates (Harden/Irving) — in the three playoffs since then. Even this time, Kawhi is missing All-Star teammate Paul George, who suffered a scary knee injury back in March. A Clippers statement this week says George has begun exercising to rehabilitate his sprained knee, but there is no timetable for his return.

Series Schedule

Here’s the full schedule for the Suns-Clippers first round series that starts this coming Sunday night.

They play the first four games in a matter of seven days. No two-day breaks in the schedule. On one hand, an old Suns team could use a little more rest. On the other, that gives very little room for an impactful Paul George return before its too late.

Recent Playoff Success

In the two years that head coach Monty Williams, point guard Chris Paul, shooting guard Devin Booker and center Deandre Ayton have been together, the Suns have had home court advantage in six playoff series. They’ve gone up 2-0 four times, with a 2-2 record in those series (Nuggets, Clippers, Bucks, Mavericks). They’ve split the first two games twice, in both their first round series, and won both series. Overall, the Suns are 21-16 in the playoffs over the last two years with a 4-2 series record.

Since Kawhi Leonard joined the Clippers in 2019, the Clippers have gone 17-15 in the playoffs as a franchise. With Kawhi in the lineup, they are 13-11 with a 2-1 series record. Leonard suffered a knee injury in the second round of the 2021 playoffs against the Utah Jazz with the series tied 2-2.

This year, the Suns have added Kevin Durant, while the Clippers are missing an injured Paul George (at least for the start of the series).

Kevin Durant is a two-time Finals MVP and been to three Finals overall, but over the last two years with the Brooklyn Nets he has gone 1-2 in playoff series.

Book and KD - most lethal scoring duo in the playoffs

Devin Booker was the league’s 11th highest scorer this year and Durant was 8th. Only one other duo could match their firepower of 59.2 points per game over the course of the season, but Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving (59.5 points) are now on summer vacation.

Book and KD would be the highest scoring players in Phoenix Suns history, but neither played enough games to qualify. Booker’s career-high 27.8 points per game would be the Suns best ever (topping Tom Chambers’ 27.2 in 1992), but he only played 53 games. Durant’s been even better, averaging at least 28 points per game in 8 of his 15 NBA seasons, including 29.1 this year, but he only appeared in 8 games in purple and orange this season.

Fans knows what’s what. They have the 6th and 7th best selling jerseys in the NBA since the All-Star break.

Leonard vs. Durant

Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard have had long, successful careers already, while also being ravaged with injuries in their past two seasons.

  • Each has twice been the MVP of the NBA Finals
  • Each is a two-time champion. Durant with Golden State twice. Leonard with Spurs and Raptors.
  • Either Durant or Leonard, or both, appeared in the NBA Finals in 6 of 8 years from 2012 to 2019, winning four championships between them
  • Durant has made four Finals overall (2012, 2017, 2018, 2019). Leonard has made three Finals overall (2014, 2019)
  • Their teams faced off in the 2019 Finals, but Durant only played 11 minutes in that series (calf, achilles).
  • They previously faced off in the 2017 Western Conference Finals, but Zaza Pachulia landed hard on Leonard closing out to Leonard’s three point shot attempt, badly injuring Leonard’s knee.
  • The last time these two faced off times in a playoff series was in 2016, as Durant’s Thunder beat Leonard’s Spurs in 6 games.
  • Due to injuries to both players, Durant and Leonard have faced off in a game only once in the past four seasons.

DraftKings Props

Series: Suns favored, with -500 odds

Player Props, Suns-Clippers series:

  • Points leader: Kawhi Leonard (+105), Kevin Durant (+175), Devin Booker (+250)
  • Assists leader: Chris Paul (-280), Russell Westbrook (+200)
  • Rebounds leader: Deandre Ayton (-125), Ivica Zubac (-115)

Player Props, Futures:

  • Kevin Durant has the 3rd best odds for Finals MVP (+600), behind Giannis and Jayson Tatum

I’m sure you’ve haven’t watched a whole lot of the Clippers this year when they weren’t playing against the Suns or on a national TV game, so I asked Lucas Hann who runs to give me the rundown of the Clippers.

Q: What is the Clippers greatest strength (what no one can stop, when they’ve got it going)

A: The Clippers’ greatest strength is probably Kawhi Leonard. After a bit of a slow ramp-up to start the season coming off of ACL surgery, he’s averaging 27 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists on outrageous 53/47/90 shooting splits in his last 35 games. He’s also playing a full minutes load (36 per game) during that span, and broke 40 minutes twice in the last week of the season, suggesting something approaching full playoff conditioning (he still looked a bit gassed towards the end of some games). He has the potential to be the best player in this series, which is essentially a must for the Clipper to win a series where the Suns have 4 of the 5 best players.

But the real secret is the Clippers’ role player shooting. As a team, they’re 3rd in the NBA in 3pt% this season, but the volume in which they create quality attempts varies. When Kawhi is drawing 2 defenders and the ball is moving, shooters get great looks, and a lot of Clippers can really shoot it—Eric Gordon, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Nico Batum, and Terance Mann are all willing to let ‘em fly and are all making 39% or better on the season. Bones Hyland is a known taker and maker of high-difficulty threes. And even Russell Westbrook (!!) is hitting 46% on 4 attempts per game in his last 9 regular season games.

What keeps the Clips from exhibiting that greatest strength all the time?

The formula is great. Kawhi is too good one-on-one for defenses to handle, so they bring help, he makes a simple pass, and the Clippers’ savvy veterans and elite shooters do the rest.

But when Ivica Zubac and Russell Westbrook are on the floor together, defenses tend to overplay Kawhi a little more freely, and the Clippers’ ability to punish that is inconsistent (Westbrook’s unsustainable recent shooting streak notwithstanding). If Kawhi can’t overpower his matchup, he isn’t creating advantages for others to capitalize on, and the Clippers don’t have a lot of other guys who can consistently create for themselves.

The main guy who can always make something happen going downhill with the ball in his hands is Russell Westbrook... who doesn’t provide the space that Kawhi needs to operate one-on-one (lineups built around Kawhi that don’t include Westbrook have a higher ORTG than lineups built around Kawhi that also include Westbrook). When the role players get going, it opens up more space for Kawhi, who forces helpers to cover more ground, creating higher quality looks for the role players. When either Kawhi gets stymied, the role players don’t get good looks. And if the role players are cold, teams can sell out on Kawhi with few repercussions.

What is their greatest weakness?

Like any 44-win team, the Clippers have a few weaknesses. They aren’t very good on defense (21st since January 1st). The coach has had trouble all season identifying his best players and playing lineup combinations that make sense. There’s a pretty significant dearth of quality on-ball creation that comes from building your roster around two All-NBA wings who aren’t prolific playmakers. And they’d certainly win a lot more games if Paul George and Kawhi Leonard appeared in more of them.

But more than anything, I think the Clippers’ biggest weakness has been their mental approach to the season, or as I like to call it, their lack of “give-a-crap” (ok, I call it something slightly different, but I’m trying to be a polite guest here). Kawhi Leonard being unexpectedly unable to start the season as he worked his way back from his ACL at the last minute put them into a funk that it has felt like they’ve never really broken out of, and the weirdness has compounded due to strange rotations, roster decisions forced by the stars, and inconsistent lineups due to load management. Aside from their Western Conference Finals run in 2021, this is a team that has always behaved as if they had a switch to flip, and then fumbled in the dark.

How do they hide or mitigate that weakness?

I guess the answer to this is... we’ll have to see? If the Clippers’ greatest weakness is their mentality and approach to the season, much of the damage has already been done. They finished with 44 wins, had to win on both ends of a back-to-back on the last two days of the season to avoid the play-in tournament, and start their playoff run in a would-be championship season as heavy road underdogs.

Now, Paul George hurting his knee on a fluke play against Lu Dort three weeks ago was beyond their control, and even if they lock in and find that switch and become something near a peak version of themselves, they’ll have a hard time fighting uphill against Phoenix’s superior top-end talent. But locking in, finding that intensity and focus, and significantly improved coaching decisions would go a long way toward challenging Phoenix and extending this series.

What are 3 keys to the Clippers winning the series against the Suns?

First, probably something they can’t control: get Paul George back. I think the Clippers have paths to wins in this series without PG, but probably not 4 of them. I don’t know if he’ll be able to come back during this series or when in the series it would be, and I’m not holding my breath that we’ll see him. But if they’re going to win 4 games, he’s going to have to be a part of at least 2 of those wins.

Second would be getting, and keeping, the Suns’ core 4 off the floor. The Suns should win the Paul-Booker-Durant-Ayton minutes by a comfortable margin over the course of the series (keeping the margin under control is essential for LAC), but Phoenix’s bench is suspect, and the more guys get rotated, the more the Clippers will find themselves facing lineups they can capitalize against. I know it sounds cheap, but Norman Powell is probably the biggest grifter that the Clippers have had in years, and Russell Westbrook’s relentless physicality draws lots of whistles too. I think it’s likely that foul trouble limiting the minutes for one or more key Suns will play a role in a Clippers victory in this series.

Lastly, I’ll say the same thing that gives every underdog hope in today’s NBA: hit threes. The Clippers are 13-3 when they make 16 or more threes this season, and combined with free throws, taking and making a bunch of ‘em is the best way to give the Suns’ lethal mid-range attack a math problem. If that math problem can get them a win or two, and then they can get George back, I’ll start thinking this is a series that LAC has a chance of winning.

Now, allow me to answer my own questions from the Suns perspective.

Q: What is the Suns greatest strength (what no one can stop, when they’ve got it going)

A: The Suns greatest strength has now become shot-creating. All of Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant can create a shot for themselves or someone else out of nothing. And the presence of those three on the floor, while Deandre Ayton draws defenders into the paint on dives, makes it almost impossible to stop the Suns from getting the shot they want when they really need one.

The Suns offense isn’t pretty. In fact, they’ve only been above-average even in Durant games, mostly because they are walking through sets to see what happens. But they are 8-0 in part because they know how to get their shot when the game is on the line. Durant is one of the best one-on-one players in the game, as is Booker. Factor in those guys drawing extra defenders every time, and you’ve got a serious problem on your hands as a defense.

What keeps the Suns from exhibiting that greatest strength all the time?

At this point their tenure together, the Suns and Durant are still feeling each other out. For two to three quarters, they’re doing a lot of trying new things out. Going through the actions at three-quarter speed, and seeing what comes out of it. And they’re playing Chris Paul almost entirely off-ball as often as possible, allowing Durant and Booker to run the offense while Paul stands in a corner for a catch-and-shoot. This is definitely not the same Suns team as the previous two playoffs, despite many of the players being the same. Two painful playoff exits and a Kevin Durant trade later, and you’ve got a different-looking Suns team to face.

What is their greatest weakness?

This year, the Suns greatest weakness appears to be live-ball turnovers. When they’re bogged down trying new things or the second unit is out there trying to prove themselves, we’ve seen more live-ball turnovers that turn into fast break points than ever. In one recent game, 14 total team turnovers were turned into 31 points for the opposition (OKC Thunder game). That’s unacceptable, and a real change from the Chris Paul ball pounding days.

How do they hide or mitigate that weakness?

Take care of the ball better. Especially Cameron Payne, who seems to make at least one my-bad pass every half that gives the other team momentum. Could be that we see more Chris Paul running the show in the playoffs than we did in the regular season if too many of these turnovers cause the Suns to lose games.

What are 3 keys to the Suns winning the series against the Clippers?

  1. Keep Durant healthy
  2. Keep Booker healthy
  3. Keep Paul healthy

This year Kevin Durant became the first player in NBA history to shoot at least 55% from the field, 40% from 3-point range and 90% from the line. He’s also one of three players — along with Steve Nash and Larry Bird — to log multiple 50/40/90 seasons.

Devin Booker set a new Suns mark for scoring average with 27.8 points per game, though he only played 53 games. Not only was he a big scorer, but also posted his 3rd most assists per game (5.5) and set new career-highs in field goal percentage (49.4%) and effective FG% (55.4%).

Both would have been All-NBA if they’d played enough games this year.

Chris Paul is potentially the best ‘third best player’ in the playoffs this year, and showed a few times that he can take over in the clutch — even with Durant and Booker on the floor — when needed.

Those are really the keys. If all three of those guys play every game of the series from opening tip to final buzzer, the Suns will win. Add in Deandre Ayton, and the Suns will have four of the best five players on the court in Game 1. They just have too much talent, while the Clippers are running with one star in Kawhi and a bunch of role players who can be pretty good but can’t be counted on over a seven game series.

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