All season long, I had a feeling that the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Clippers were on a collision course.
Wasn’t sure if it’d be round one, two, or three - or even if both teams would be healthy for the said match-up, but I had a gut feeling their seasons aligned, yet again.
Here we are.
Not even two full years removed from their six-game Conference Finals bout in 2021, which saw the Suns youth take the forefront and a poetic Paul stamp, they are now set up for what’s sure to be an(other) entertaining series, only much earlier this go around.
The Clippers had an up-and-down regular season, largely due to a multitude of staggered injury stints from both Leonard and George.
Nonetheless, from a distance, I’d always expected them to be a very physical, rough, and rugged group, that would be more effective on the defensive end due to collective veteran acumen plus scheme/lineup/roster versatility galore.
Add to that Ty Lue, a defensive-minded tactician, who is second-to-none at exploiting opponent’s weaknesses, and they have the makings for a team that should be stamped as a top-third unit on the less glamorous end, in all contexts.
Amidst the injuries, they also ingratiated additions to their roster on the fly - via of Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, Bones Hyland, and Mason Plumlee.
Westbrook fit in alignment with the edge and demeanor - with size - that the Clippers have rounded into. He also gave them another piece that can work in isolation (0.897 - average), in the post (1.14 - excellent), and in pick-and-roll (0.955 - very good).
While the perception and impact of his numbers lack effect on the game at times, he still presents them with a player that commands attention when operating inside the arc.
Gordon (42.3%) and Hyland (35.1%) have presented more floor spacing and shot creation as well, while Plumlee has insulated them with a backup center who has scheme versatility on defense, with plenty of activity and size, who also raises the skill level on the floor for them offensively.
Plumlee bridges the gap for Lue in presenting a viable stopgap between pivoting directly to small ball, and still maintaining size (with versatility) behind Zubac.
This series has a ton of potential for elite scoring, ancillary scoring, and general operating of the playoffs stage.
Two veteran teams, veteran coaches, and styles of play that are nurtured over the course of 82 for this specific stage make for some undeniably fun basketball and on-court chess to come.
George being out - for the short-term, at least - takes some of the wind out of the sails, nonetheless, this will be a hotly contested series between two teams that match up fairly well.
The Suns undoubtedly have the higher offensive ceiling, while the defensive ceiling for both presently seems close to neutral (with the Suns having been much better post-all-star, however).
Starting Lineups (Projected)
Projected Starting Lineups
|Chris Paul||Russell Westbrook|
|Devin Booker||Eric Gordon|
|Josh Okogie||Kawhi Leonard|
|Kevin Durant||Nicolas Batum|
|Deandre Ayton||Ivica Zubac|
2022-23 Season Stats
Regular Season Team Stats -
|Half-court Offensive Rating||97.5||98.8|
|Half-court Defensive Rating||96.5||97.6|
|Effective Field Goal Percentage||53.5||55.1|
Defending the Clippers
Looking at their offense, they have been heavily reliant on the play initiation, table setting, and advantage creation, of Kawhi Leonard (and Paul George).
A contrast to teams that use movement (Warriors, Kings, Nuggets, and even the Suns themselves in some regards), they love to hunt qualitative and positional mismatches - sometimes with great diligence - and can exploit them in a multitude of ways.
One of the many ways they do so is - not unlike the Mavericks did with Doncic last postseason - to have smaller or the weakest defenders directly involved in the action, via “hunt” screens (a screen simply to induce a favorable switch, “hunting” out the smaller or weaker defenders, to then attack in isolation).
They love to use Mann, Westbrook, and Gordon as screeners to manipulate match-ups, which will naturally call to task [insert Suns guard here] for containment of the ball.
Their offense is broadly rooted in match-up hunting, then playing through that advantage. Some things will look similar to the Suns, with respect to pistol action early in offensive possessions.
Sans George (since March 23rd) Kawhi Leonard has had a usage rate of 28.4, which ranks 93rd percentile.
There will be heavy dependence on his shot creation, advantage setting, and playmaking, in numerous offensive contexts. He will be the focal point of their offense in the George-less rendition.
In terms of the season as a whole, Leonard has had a *really* good one that hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves.
On the season, he’s at 55.1% from two, 41.6% from three, and 87.1% from the line. His effective field goal percentage is a career-best, 57.2%.
Zoom in even more, and you’ll see he’s at a near career-high volume on attempts from 10-16 feet, is at a career-best clip of 53.1% there, and is never short on how casual or effortless he makes even the most difficult of shots look.
In pick-and-roll, he’s been an absolute nightmare of a Rubik’s cube to solve, posting a 1.16 PPP mark which, for 65 players who’ve initiated 240+ of these scenarios, is the best.
His effective field goal percentage in this scenario ranks third, as does his points per shot mark (1.18).
His evolution and career arch - from a spot-up guy who was learning to handle against NBA pressure defenses (3-and-D), to now being a near scheme-proof weapon with the requisite processing speed to exploit schemes with a healthy blend of scoring and playmaking - has been impressive to track.
As a cherry on top here, Leonard also has the best score percentage out of pick-and-roll in the league.
In addition to that, he was also fifth in points per shot in isolation for players who had 200+ possessions in this context, at 1.01, and was also tied for fourth in points per shot via post-up of the 49 players who had as many reps as him, at 0.97.
Assessing Kawhi through a playoff lens, especially with the shot types and methods of operating, I’ve always equated him - in impact - to the same tier (or tier adjacent to) the likes of Durant.
Dating back to the 2017 playoffs, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard have been offensive machines when on the floor.— Shane Young (@YoungNBA) April 15, 2023
Nearly identical scoring and efficiency during that span: pic.twitter.com/Fc9RLZAwJp
He operates in a ton of the same spaces, in somewhat similar manners, on elite efficiencies, too.
Him being one of the most abundantly versatile weapons, he can certainly, seemingly single-handedly, win multiple games on this stage.
Oh yeah, he’s also still no slouch on defense - even though he’s not quite the all-encompassing menace he was prior to the lower leg injuries.
Transitioning back to the Clippers as a whole, they use plenty of pick-and-roll to set advantages and have a glut of short-roll playmakers, including both Zubac and Plumlee, but also Terance Mann (!) and Russell Westbrook.
Speaking of Westbrook, especially without George, his hand in usage on the game will be as steady as any other Clipper.
The Suns will be tasked with having discernment with their switching and showing evolution in their defensive process, by not so easily conceding the desired match-ups that the Clippers will be hunting.
Also, toggling schemes and tapping into the acquired defensive versatility they now have with Durant (another seven-footer) being paired with Ayton.
The lacking of the two aforementioned dynamics, in consistency and effectiveness, is partly what worked against the Suns and led to their exit last postseason.
A similar opposing operating process will be put forth by the Clippers, with Leonard (in all offensive contexts), but also with Westbrook, should he be enabled post touches.
I mentioned in my ‘Suns Study with Stephen’ podcast that the Suns could, in theory, test out Ayton (or Durant) on Westbrook. That takes their “hunt” screens with Westbrook off the table, keeps him away from the post (where he’s most effective), and allows for Durant or Ayton to remain near the rim in 2.9’ing, in anticipation of rotations to protect the rim.
The Clippers also have a glut of solid shooting spacers in the catch-and-shoot game, from three (post-all-star):
- Covington - 65.4%
- Leonard - 48.1%
- Gordon - 42.2%
- Batum - 42.2%
- Mann - 42.1%
- Hyland - 35.7%
- Powell - 35.3%
This speaks to the Suns needing to be disciplined in their closeouts, but not just to run guys off the line. Each of these players (sans Covington) has the ability to attack a closeout to get to the basket or create for someone else.
The defense of the Suns, in mental stamina surely, and connectivity, will be tested.
Operating against the Clippers
On the season, the Clippers finished 13th in points allowed (112.7), opponents had a 14th-ranked effective field goal percentage of 54.2, and opponents scored 46.1% of the time against them, a 17th-ranked mark.
Those are alright but don’t strike the accord I presumed would even be their floor on that end.
In the half-court, what tracked in respect to my expectations aligned, which was them finishing top-third (10th), at 91.2 allowed there.
They are aggressive with their switches, good at preventing slips, and love to close the air space on the catch.
In terms of pick-and-roll coverage, they love to “ice” and “weak” on the outer thirds, then, both Zubac and Plumlee have the versatility to play at the level of the screen.
The Clippers concede late switches in these scenarios often but truly love to switch in a natural exchange, electing to flatten out an offensive attack and flow, while also keeping their defense on the backline out of rotation, and doing so with activity.
The switching goes for natural pick-and-roll, but also pick-and-roll adjacent type scenarios as well (“get” action, dribble hand-offs, etc.).
They run plenty of zone as well, particularly a 2-3.
For the nine teams compiling 338+ possessions of zone defense, they had the second-best opposing points per shot mark, at 1.05, and in opposing effective field goal percentage, of 52.3%.
They’ll deploy it to break pace and flow of a game, but also use it as a weapon after timeouts.
They also have plenty of potential for match-up tactics, in which they’ve shown to put a few of their wings (Batum, Mann, Covington) on opposing centers while stashing their center on a lesser shooter (say, Okogie).
This was used a few separate times in their regular season series with the Suns, making screening actions become switches.
There was only one game where they worked against Durant this season, which came with him as a Net, of course:
Sound On— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) April 14, 2023
Kevin Durant had 1 game against the Clippers this season (27p, 3a, 3to)
Granted, it was vs the pre deadline Clippers, & there was no Kawhi, there were still some valuable takeaways in:
types of help & doubles
usage as a screener vs switches pic.twitter.com/3tpVumZJtD
When it came to guarding Booker, they often elected to be up at the level of the screen if not switching, and applying ball pressure, but gave mixed coverages, generally.
On Paul, Mann would often extend his pick-up point past half-court, not unlike many other teams have, as they’d also keep mixed coverages on him.
X-Factor: Deandre Ayton
If Deandre Ayton can perform in the manner that he has in his previous two first-round series, that will be a dynamic that will truly make the Suns operate at their most optimal levels.
His potential for two-way impact is what makes him one of the better centers in the league - the Suns can actually play their starting center without having to worry about him being hunted or exploited for any alarming weaknesses.
That, in and of itself, is a weapon. It enables Monty Williams to not be reactionary to things other teams may do with their lineups - keeping him in a position of dictating - and allows the Suns to potentially use other non-Ayton lineups as true weapons.
He averaged 15.8 points and 10.7 rebounds against the Lakers in the opening round of the 2020-21 playoffs.
Last postseason, against the Pelicans, he was at 20.5 points and 9.8 rebounds.
In two games against the Clippers this season, he averaged 15.5 points and 7.0 rebounds.
His gravity as a roller, short-roll playmaking ability, and soft-touch finishes below the free-throw line are all dynamics that will need to be blended into the flow as a steady dynamic, and serve as avenues where can truly push the needle in this series.
There will come times when he will have a Batum, Covington, Mann, Morris Sr., or even maybe a Leonard switched onto him. He will be implored to attack and score in those scenarios and be a true paint presence.
The “familiarity” factor will be at the foundation of the plot in this series, and we have the makings for - regardless of the outcome - what could be a very entertaining series, between two teams that quietly have some level of animosity for one another.
I believe the Suns defensive numbers with Durant in the mix are sustainable and translatable to postseason play. That, blended with still untapped potential on offense, allows for them to hit notes that most in the Western Conference cannot, and I do not believe the Clippers can consistently hit said notes on both ends of the floor consistently enough to win multiple games in this series.
Suns in 5.
A Clippers Perspective - from Robert Flom, of 213 Hoops
1. ) Who do you think is the best defensive match-up for Durant, after Leonard?
There are no great match-ups for KD, but the Clippers do have some decent options. I’d say Nic Batum is probably the next-best after Kawhi, as his blend of size, strength, and smarts should enable him to at least make life difficult for KD. Robert Covington is slower of foot, but he also has the length and the wisdom to contest shots without fouling and try to keep KD as a shooter. I think the Clippers will also try smaller guys like Eric Gordon, Russell Westbrook, and Terance Mann to dig under KD. My order would probably go - Kawhi, Nico, Mann, RoCo, with PG as the second option if available.
2.) Do you feel the inevitable small ball lineups to come from the Clippers will be baked into the gameplan? Or do you think they will serve as more of a reaction to what may arise in trying to defend Phoenix?
My guess is that Ty Lue will start the series with Zubac as the starter and Mason Plumlee as the backup big man. However, I expect quick adjustments (like by Game 2) if those lineups don’t prove feasible. The Clippers’ small-ball units haven’t worked much this season, but that’s also because Ty Lue has tried to juice their offense with lots of guards. If Kawhi Leonard is mostly on the court, the presence of an additional guard on offense is less useful, so the Clippers can play bigger small-ball units that hopefully offer more size and rebounding while still providing spacing. Long story short, I expect that by Game 3, especially if the Clippers drop both 1 and 2, they will be going small a lot.
3.) What is your assessment of the Phoenix Suns, as a threat to the Clippers?
The Suns should have four of the five best players in the series if Paul George doesn’t play, even counting CP’s slippage and Ayton’s inconsistencies. It’s really tough to bet against a team with that kind of talent disadvantage, even though I think the Suns’ lack of chemistry and dearth of true two-way players behind that top four makes them vulnerable against the best teams. Honestly, the Clippers match up ok, but they just don’t have the two-way firepower to keep up with the Suns, I don’t think.
4.) Do you think the Suns pace of play (spent 79.9% of their possessions in the half-court post All-Star) is favorable to the Clippers?
Yes. The Clippers are old and slow and hate playing fast teams. When they try to play fast, they turn the ball over and get unbalanced on the court. While the Suns have more top end talent than the Grizzlies or Kings, their style of play is more conducive to the Clippers on both ends.
5.) What dynamic of the Clippers attack (on either end) is the avenue where you feel can take this series?
Defensively, their small ball lineups need to be able to stay on the floor. Mason PLumlee has been a regular season boon, but his defensive weaknesses were present even there, and I’m just not sure he can stick against the midrange pull-up nightmares of KD, Booker, and CP. Therefore, Nic Batum, Robert Covington, and Marcus Morris will play center, maybe a lot, and that should allow the Clippers to switch more. Incidentally, that’s the best way to stop a team like the Suns that can devolve into more ISO-ball and tough shot making. If the Clippers can turn the Suns into jump shooters… well, even guys like KD and Booker can get cold for a game or two, and if that happens, who knows.
6.) Offensively, who will be the best option after Leonard?
Presuming Paul George doesn’t play or isn’t 100%.... The answers aren’t great. For as big as his limitations are, Russell Westbrook will be the Clippers’ 2nd guy on offense. Whether he should be is a different story. Norm Powell would be the other answer, but a lot of his offensive value comes from grifting fouls, and historically those are called less in the postseason. Bones Hyland has been phenomenal over the past few weeks, and his combination of shooting, playmaking, and pace might actually make him the answer here, but I don’t think he has the full trust of the coaching staff yet.
7.) Do you feel the Clippers will be able to keep pace with the Suns scoring?
Probably not. Some of the Clippers’ best offensive players - Norm Powell and Bones Hyland in particular - are not good defensively. Norm will play significant minutes regardless, but if Bones is pushed out of the rotation and it’s tough for the Clippers to play their guards together defensively, they just won’t have the firepower to match the Suns. Adding Paul George’s 25 points per game and two-way play would allow the Clippers to get to more balanced lineups, but without him, the Clippers are heavy on one-way players.
8.) The Clippers have seemingly insulated Westbrook with spacing on offense, which naturally takes away the defensive balance. Can you provide some insight on what you feel will be the first round rotation? (Feel free to provide what you believe it will be, then what you’d desire for it to be)
The Clippers will almost certainly start Russ-Eric Gordon-Kawhi-Nic Batum-Zubac. Norm Powell, Terance Mann, and Mason Plumlee seem like locks off the bench, at least at the beginning of the series. One of Bones Hyland or Robert Covington will likely be in the rotation as well - I’d guess Bones. Marcus Morris will also get a shot at some point.
My ideal rotation would be extremely different, as I’d start Bones and Terance over Russ and Gordon, and wouldn’t play Gordon in the rotation at all, with a bench unit of Russ-Norm-RoCo-Plumlee.
9.) What weakness of the Suns do you feel the Clippers can most exploit?
All due respect to a lot of the veterans on the Suns, whom are nice enough 8th, 9th, and 10th guys, the Suns are lacking in those steady 5th to 7th high-end rotation players. How can the Clippers take advantage? One is to try to get the Suns into foul trouble. This is useful against any opponent, but particularly one where most of the talent is concentrated in four players. Russell Westbrook, Norm Powell, and Kawhi Leonard are all adept foul-drawers, and the Clippers need to try to keep the Suns’ best players off the court as much as possible.
Secondly, the Clippers need to try to play the Suns straight up, and send limited help at Kevin Durant and Devin Booker. While they don’t have the perimeter defensive talent of the Celtics, they’re fairly well set. More importantly, they need to try to force shots to Torrey Craig, Josh Okogie, and Jock Landale. Those guys can all make threes, but being left wide open time and again can be psychologically difficult, and if those guys start second-guessing, Monty will have to turn to more defensively limited players like Terence Ross or Landry Shamet.
10.) What’s your series prediction?
I am sticking with my Suns in 6 prediction from a few days ago. While the Clippers have enough depth and talent to make this a competitive series, it’s hard to imagine them winning more than a couple games without the services of Paul George - and we simply don’t know when he’ll be back.