The Conference finals are finally upon us in what has been a turbulent season. All remaining teams are looking to reach their first finals in the 21st century, with the Los Angeles Clippers looking to reach their first ever finals.
Injuries to star players have blighted the postseason, resulting in somewhat surprising matchups. Here is a breakdown of the Western Conference finals.
The second seed Suns have proven themselves this postseason. Even with an injured Chris Paul, they were able to dispatch the Lakers (who had their own fitness issues), in six games. A four-game sweep of the Denver Nuggets and league MVP Nikola Jokic, has meant the Suns are in their first conference finals since 2010.
Shooting guard Devin Booker and point guard Chris Paul are their lead men. Paul however has tested positive for Covid and will miss the first few games of this series. In Paul’s absence, Booker has had to undertake a larger playmaking role, which after game one he proved adept at.
Booker’s 40-point triple double, including 11 assists in his first conference finals, led the Suns to a tight game one win. Throughout the game Booker was able to find his shooting spots on the court and never looked to force his shot, shooting 51.7% from the field, a clear sign of his elite offensive ability. Booker will have to maintain this level of production until Paul returns from isolation.
Suns center Deandre Ayton has continued to improve, providing valuable offensive production. The center position was an area which the Clippers exploited in their semi-final versus the Utah Jazz, as center Rudy Gobert could not punish the Clippers small ball lineups. Defensively Ayton has impressed. In game one he showed how he coped well with the Clippers small ball, which forced him out of the paint. If Ayton can continue this level of play, the Suns have a real shot at reaching the finals.
In Paul’s place, backup guard Cam Payne played extended minutes and produced an efficient 11 points and nine assists. Mikal Bridges remains a top-level wing defender who can also provide offensive production. In game one, six Suns players scored double digits, and this must be maintained to beat the Clippers.
The Clippers, although they are underdogs, carry some good form into the match
The Clippers on the other hand will still be encouraged after their game one loss on the road. Without their best player Kawhi Leonard since game four of the semi-finals, the Clippers have put together two impressive wins to close out the Jazz and then come extremely close to stealing game one.
Even while Kawhi was fit, wing and fellow all-NBA level talent Paul George has been on a redemption tour, validating why he is nicknamed ‘Playoff P’. George averaged 29 points, 9.5 rebounds and five assists against the Jazz and put up 34 points in game one. Like Booker, George will have to maintain his production, until Kawhi returns.
Coach Ty Lue has become known for looking to players who seem ready for the moment, and various members of the Clippers roster have stepped up to answer his calls. Point guard Reggie Jackson has been the surprise of the playoffs with his production averaging 20 points and four assists.
At a point in the third quarter of game one it seemed he could not miss a three. In the close out game of the semi-finals, Terrence Mann produced an unbelievable performance, scoring 39 points, only missing six shots. Forward Nic Batum has provided valuable big defence, enabling the Clippers to revert to small ball lineups, while also providing important floor spacing for George and Kawhi to operate.
For the Clippers to beat the Suns without Kawhi, more production is required from their role players. Only three players managed double digits in game one, which proved to be their biggest shortfall.
Ultimately this matchup is very tight and should see six games. Both sides are strong defensively, contributions from role players on both sides may be the difference.
The Suns currently lead 2-0, after defeating the Clippers in the second game as well.