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Saturday, June 19, 2021

L.A. Clippers Versus Phoenix Preview

Western Conference Finals

#4 L.A. Clippers (47-25) vs. #2 Phoenix (51-31) 

Season series: L.A. Clippers, 2-1

Phoenix can win if…Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker, and Chris Paul continue to score so efficiently. Their marksmanship enabled the Suns to eliminate the 2020 NBA Champion Lakers in the first round, and then sweep last year's other Western Conference Finalist, the Denver Nuggets, in the second round.

However, Paul's status for the series is uncertain after the NBA placed him in COVID-19 quarantine. It appears that Paul will miss at least game one, although neither the Suns nor the NBA have definitely ruled him out for Sunday's contest. Paul suffered a shoulder injury during the first round that limited his effectiveness versus the Lakers, but the Suns survived because of their depth, and because the Lakers had their own injury woes that took Anthony Davis out of the lineup and that seemed to limit LeBron James' ability to take over. It will be interesting to see how the Suns respond if Paul is not available for at least part of the Western Conference Finals.

L.A. will win because…the Clippers have demonstrated that they should never be counted out. In the first round versus Dallas they lost the first two games at home before winning the series in seven games. In the second round, they lost the first two games on the road versus the number one seeded Utah Jazz before winning the next four games, including the last two without the services of injured two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. The Clippers have provided no indication of how long Leonard will be out of action, simply listing him as inactive prior to each of the last two games. 

It was reasonable to assume that the Clippers would fall apart without Leonard, but instead they beat Utah in Utah in game five as Paul George authored perhaps the best playoff performance of his career with 37 points and 16 rebounds. George cooled off a bit in game six, but still produced 28 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. The improbable game six hero was Terance Mann, whose 39 points were more than he had ever scored in a single game in the NBA or college. Mann shot 15-21 from the field, including 7-10 from three point range. The Jazz repeatedly chose to leave him open in order to protect the paint, and Mann made them pay as the Clippers shredded a Jazz defense anchored by Rudy Gobert, a three-time winner of the Defensive Player of the Year award (2018, 2019, 2021). The Clippers overcame a 25 point deficit by draining 14 second half three pointers—setting a franchise record for three pointers made in one half—and scoring 81 second half points en route to pulling off the biggest comeback in a series clinching win in the past 25 years. 

The Clippers' second half three point shooting is not sustainable, but the Clippers pose matchup problems for the Suns at both ends of the court.

Other things to consider: I did not predict that Paul would play as well as he played against Denver because he has never played at that level before. I will go out on a limb and predict that he does not play at that level in this series.

It is interesting to observe the media coverage of certain players and coaches. Clippers' Coach Tyronn Lue has already won a championship (Cleveland, 2016) but his rotations and general decision making are often criticized by self-proclaimed experts. While it may be fair to ask why his team has twice fallen behind 2-0 in the playoffs this year, it is undeniable that a poorly coached team would not have bounced back to win those series. Lue defeated Rick Carlisle—a highly respected championship-winning coach—in the first round, and then he defeated Quin Snyder—a highly respected coach of the team with the league's best record in 2021—in the second round. Any other coach who accomplished this would be highly praised, but for some reason the media acts like Lue's teams win despite his coaching instead of because of his coaching.

Can the Clippers reach the NBA Finals without Leonard? In 1999, a lockout-shortened 50 game season, the New York Knicks went 27-23 and then lost the services of leading scorer Patrick Ewing to a season-ending injury during game two of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Knicks won that series versus the Indiana Pacers before succumbing to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. Considering Paul George's inconsistent playoff resume and the Clippers' history of postseason disappointments, one would not have expected the Clippers to have a chance against Utah without Leonard, but this team has proven to be quite resilient, and this year's playoffs have provided many unexpected plot twists.

I never expected to write these words even before Leonard's injury, and I definitely did not expect to write these words after Leonard's injury, but L.A. will defeat Phoenix in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:41 AM



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