As on-a-tee storylines go, Chris Paul facing the Clippers in the Western Conference finals, where he was never able to lead them in six seasons with the team, is pretty perfect. But will Paul actually play in the series? We know he’s already out for Game 1 as he remains in COVID health and safety protocols.
Of course, the Clippers are playing without a star of their own. Kawhi Leonard won’t travel to Phoenix for the first two games of the series, meaning the earliest we could possibly see him is in Game 3 as he deals with what the Clippers are calling a sprained knee. But the feeling is it’s worse than that sounds. The Clippers reportedly feared early on it was an ACL injury, but it was said the swelling needed to subside before they could run the appropriate tests.
There’s a good chance we don’t see Leonard in this series. Chances are, Paul will be available at some point. We’ll get into that and more below in our WCF preview. First, a look at the series schedule and viewing information.
- Game 1: Clippers @ Suns, Sun June 20, 3:30 p.m., ABC
- Game 2: Clippers @ Suns, Tue June 22, 9 p.m., ESPN
- Game 3: Suns @ Clippers, Thu June 24, 9 p.m., ESPN
- Game 4: Suns @ Clippers, Sat June 26, 9 p.m., ESPN
- Game 5 (if needed): Clippers @ Suns, Mon June 28, 9 p.m., TBD
- Game 6 (if needed): Suns @ Clippers, Wed June 30, 9 p.m., TBD
- Game 7 (if needed): Clippers @ Suns, Fri July 2, 9 p.m., TBD
1. Will the superstars play?
Let’s not get too fancy off the top here. Every game Chris Paul misses is a huge leg up for the Clippers. Yes, the Suns picked Paul up when he was playing with one arm against the Lakers, but he was mostly back to himself against Denver and Phoenix rolled. He was fifth in MVP voting for crying out loud. His presence, or lack thereof, is potentially series swinging either way.
That said, the same is true of Kawhi Leonard. Every game he doesn’t play is huge for the Suns, who would otherwise be forced to decide between doubling Leonard or sticking to the Clippers’ army of shooters. Without Leonard, the Suns, who are about as equipped as any team to stay with L.A.’s shooters with long, athletic, and tough wing defenders, can more or less play man to man.
That’s important because the Clippers are red-hot right now. They made 14 of 19 from 3 in the second half of Game 6 to close out the Jazz. After losing the first two games of that series, they posted an absolutely ridiculous 133.7 offensive rating over the final four games.
Without Paul on the floor, the Clippers are also in a better position to potentially play Ivica Zubac. They’ve gone small to keep Zubac from getting cooked as a drop pick-and-roll defender (as he was in the first two rounds when he was on the court vs. Luka Doncic and Donovan Mitchell), and if Paul is on the court walking into those elbow jumpers off high-screen action, the Clippers’ center will be virtually unplayable.
Now, when and if Ty Lue sees fit, Zubac can combat Deandre Ayton for some minutes to negate the Suns’ size advantage. But that could only hold true for a few games, or even one game. As stated at the top, it seems more likely that Paul plays in this series than Leonard. Advantage, Suns.
2. Paul George vs. Devin Booker
The thing is, even without Leonard and Paul we have a legit superstar matchup in George vs. Booker. Both are capable of carrying their team. We’ve seen it. George was superb in Games 5 and 6 to close out Utah in Leonard’s absence. He’s been fantastic all postseason, really.
In three regular-season games vs. the Suns, George averaged over 32 points on 56-61-80 shooting splits while knocking down 17 3-pointers. You’ll likely see Mikal Bridges on George to start, but the Suns can capably switch with the likes of Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson. I’ll be interested to see how much high pick-and-roll the Clippers run for George to try to exploit Ayton in a backpedal. I suspect a lot. Ayton trying to defend in small lineups space is going to be a massive part of this series.
Meanwhile, Booker is also living up to the star billing in his first postseason. he averaged just under 30 points in the Lakers series when Paul was all but useless. He’s averaging 27.7 overall in the playoffs. He is a solid pick-and-roll initiator, though Paul he is not. Monte Williams runs great sets to get Booker catch-and-shoot looks, but without Paul orchestrating and with the Clippers equipped to switch off-ball actions, things get a lot tougher.
3. Make-or-miss series
Both the Suns and Clippers are jump-shooting teams. They just do it from different spots. The Clippers fire away from 3, while the Suns hunt the mid-range with Paul and Booker (Without Paul, it’ll be interesting to see if the Suns step back for more 3s in the early part of the series).
Entering this series, the Suns rank 14th out of 20 postseason teams in shot frequency at the rim. The Clippers rank 13th. They are going to fire jumpers, both of them, and they are going to be contested jumpers. The Suns have the top defensive rating in the playoffs, while the Clippers, despite playing small much of the time (or perhaps because of it), are allowing just 37.7 points in the paint per game in the playoffs, the best mark among all 16 qualifying teams.
Translation: the Clippers make you shoot jumpers. The Suns love to take jumpers. Can they make more than the Clippers, who are shooting a collective 40.5 percent from 3 in the playoffs? That will go a long way in determining the winner of this series.