10:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Suns -4, Over/Under: 221
With three weeks left in the Regular Season there is still very much left to be decided, particularly out West where the top the standings are far from settled as the Phoenix Suns play host to the Los Angeles Clippers with just one game between them in this battle from the Valley of the Sun in Phoenix, Arizona. No team in the league is set to be judged more harshly on what they do in the Postseason than the Clippers (43-20, 3rd in Western Conference), who are desperate to put last season’s sensational collapse behind them and advance to what would be the first NBA Finals in franchise history, and maybe, just maybe, hoist a historic first Larry O’Brien Trophy. After all, this is a team that has been singularly focused on raising their profile not just within the Association, but in their own city where they have long played the role of little brother to the reigning NBA Champion, Los Angeles Lakers. The club completely remade themselves two years ago when they added a pair of All-NBA talents in the form of Kawhi Leonard (25.7 PTS, 51.6% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 6.7 REB, 5.1 AST, 1.7 STL, 26.8 PER) and Paul George (23.7 PTS, 47.6% FG, 42.4% 3FG, 6.5 REB, 5.3 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.5 BLK, 21.8 PER), with the former fresh off an NBA Finals MVP run with the Toronto Raptors, and built an audacious marketing campaign that would make their intentions clear: L.A. Our Way. After a stellar Regular Season that was halted midway due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Clippers entered the Playoffs within the Bubble in Orlando as betting favorites to win the championship, with a potential meeting with the Lakers in the Conference Finals looking fated to happen. Unfortunately, that was not to be, as they were unceremoniously eliminated in the Western Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets, who rallied back from a 3-1 deficit, embarrassing their opponent in spectacular fashion, as their STAPLES Center neighbors would go on to win the seventeenth championship in franchise history. So with all that in mind, the Clippers went back to the drawing board looking to improve in the necessary areas so that they could in fact put that nightmare behind them, and the general train of thought is that they are better equipped to deal with the Postseason this time around than they were a year ago. Why the reason for optimism, you ask? Well, it starts first and foremost with (Head Coach) Tyronn Lue, who was tabbed to replace longtime mentor Doc Rivers following that aforementioned collapse in the Playoffs. Lue, of course, is better suited than most to deal with a roster full of stars, having guided the Cleveland Cavaliers to three consecutive NBA Finals from 2016 to 2018, including their first NBA Championship in a historic comeback over the 73-win Golden State Warriors in 2016. The 43-year has often been lauded for his communicative skills, but his strategic nous hasn’t received enough credit for Los Angeles has been one of the most formidable offensive teams in the league this season; in an era in which three-point shooting has become the primary emphasis around the NBA, these guys have been the deadliest around, shooting a blistering 41.7% from beyond the arc (1st Overall), with eight different players shooting over 39.0% from long distance. Many players are enjoying career campaigns in this regard, including the aforementioned George, who appears to be on a mission to right the wrong that was last year’s Playoffs in which he struggled immensely. The seven-time All-Star has posted career-highs in both field goal percentage (47.6%) and three-point percentage (42.4%), while also dishing out a personal best 5.3 assists despite playing much of the second half of the season with a tender toe. With fellow All-Star, Leonard, sidelined with a nagging foot of his own, George has been nothing short of impressive, averaging 30.2 points on an efficient 50.3% shooting overall and 42.7% from downtown, along with 7.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and 1.4 steals over the last twelve games, a period in which the team has won all but two of those outings. In fact, Lue’s charges are 13-4 since the Trade Deadline and the significance of that has been the addition of (veteran Point Guard) Rajon Rondo (6.5 PTS, 44.4% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 5.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 15.0 PER), who has helped alleviate the playmaking burden from Leonard and George. One of the persistent criticisms of this team is that they’ve become a largely jump-shooting team under Lue, and in that case had relied upon the talents of those two All-Stars to not only create for themselves, but others as well to the point where it was becoming a detriment. In essence, they lacked a classic floor general, so they shipped out Lou Williams in favor of Rondo, who even at the age of 35-years old has proven more than capable of injecting some fluidity and ball-movement to the attack; in the thirteen games since Rondo returned to the City of Angels, the Clippers’ Offense has kicked into another gear, averaging 115.5 points on 48.4% shooting, including 42.7% from three, with a much healthier 25.7 assists, reaching thirty or more dimes on four occasions, which is something that they managed just six times in the fifty previous games. The four-time All-Star was an understated, yet vital, component of the Lakers run to a championship last season, and the Clippers hope that he will have a similar effect on their fortunes in just a few weeks time. In the meantime, this is a team that will be looking to return to full strength for they’ve certainly been dealt with their share of bumps and bruises over the past few weeks; George and Leonard’s lower body injuries aside, veterans such as Patrick Beverley (8.0 PTS, 43.2% FG, 41.6% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.8 BLK, 12.8 PER) and Serge Ibaka (10.9 PTS, 50.7% FG, 35.2% 3FG, 6.7 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.2 BLK, 17.6 PER) have both been sidelined for weeks now, with the former having been out since early April with an ailing hand and set to be re-evaluated in another week, while the latter is expected to miss tonight’s matchup with Phoenix due to a sore back. This is the third and final meeting between these sides during the Regular Season, with Los Angeles having won each of the previous two encounters, including a 112-107 affair in Phoenix back on January 3rd followed by a 113-103 battle more recently on April 8th.
“We just didn’t bring it, we were flat tonight… We were out of sync. And give them credit… They played a great game tonight, defensively and offensively. They were hot.”Paul George on the struggles of the Clippers in their 120-103 loss at the Pelicans on Monday Night, which snapped a four-game winning streak as he managed only nine points on 3-of-11 shooting from the field.
When we last saw the Clippers, their four-game winning streak came to an abrupt end in their trip to the Big Easy where they were throttled by the New Orleans Pelicans in a 120-103 affair on Monday Night. With Leonard, Beverley, and Ibaka all out with various maladies, the hosts managed to successfully key in on George, who struggled mightily en route to a scant nine points on just 3-of-11 shooting (27.3%) with more turnovers (4) than assists (3) in nearly twenty-five minutes of action. With that said, the more notable piece of news is that the 3-yeaar old appeared to have sprained his right ankle before finally departing the hardwood in the Fourth Quarter. Los Angeles jumped out to an early 9-2 lead, but it was all New Orleans from there as the home side went on a 27-4 tear that put them up comfortably 33-16 late in the opening stanza. Lue’s troops would steadily chip away at the deficit in moving within six points before the Pelicans would go on another run to extend their advantage to 62-48 at Halftime. In the end, the Clippers shot just 40.0% overall, including 14-of-45 from beyond the arc (31.1%), dishing out a mere twenty assists while committing nineteen turnovers, which parlayed into twenty-one points for their opponent. It was certainly a step backward for a team that had been shooting so well from the perimeter and moving the basketball with far more fluidity over the past month, though there were still some positives that could be taken from the defeat. (Young Swingman) Terance Mann (6.8 PTS, 48.4% FG, 42.2% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 1.7 AST, 0.5 STL, 13.0 PER) played well in extended minutes, scoring a team-high seventeen points on 4-of-6 shooting (66.7%), including 7-of-7 from the free-throw line (100.0%), along with four rebounds and a pair of assists. (Veteran Center) DeMarcus Cousins (7.3 PTS, 47.3% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 5.2 REB, 1.2 AST, 14.8 PER) also showed out, totaling sixteen points and eleven rebounds in nearly twenty-five minutes off the bench. Signed to a series of ten-day contracts (and now on board for the rest of the campaign), the former All-Star is hoping to enjoy a healthy streak of play for the first time in, well… what seems like quite a while; now on his fifth in the last four years, Cousins seemed to relish the opportunity to perform against one of his former sides, and Lue hopes that he can become a valuable cog in their machine come the Playoffs, where his size and rebounding would be a welcome addition to the rotation. Lue will calling for a more concerted effort on the defensive end before this three-game road trip comes to a close, particularly after giving up 53.7% shooting to New Orleans, including 15-of-29 from three (51.7%) and twenty-eight assists. Six different players scored in double-figures for the hosts, who were led by (young Forward) Zion Williamson, who finished with twenty-three points on a stellar 8-of-11 shooting (72.7%).
Meanwhile, after over a decade it appears that the Suns (43-18, 2nd in Western Conference) are indeed returning to the Playoffs, though at this point it remains to be seen just how successful they will be once they arrive. Between February and Mid-April, Phoenix was arguably the most impressive team in the Association, winning all but seven of their thirty-seven contests during that period, vaulting them to within striking distance of the Utah Jazz for top honors in the conference, though their form of late resembles a side that has returned to Earth, splitting their last six outings. As a result, (Head Coach) Monty Williams’ side are in a very interesting situation; trailing the Jazz by one game in the standings and leading the Clippers by that same margin, they could find themselves facing one of Play-In sides, or they could instead end up facing the Sixth Seed, which at this point looks like it will be either the Dallas Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. Preferred matchups aside, the Suns should be carrying themselves as favorites, for that is what they’ve become, and it can all be drawn towards the addition of one man: Chris Paul (16.1 PTS, 48.9% FG, 38.1% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 8.7 AST, 1.4 STL, 20.5 PER). Even at the age of thirty-five, the nine-time All-NBA Point Guard has proven to have plenty left in the proverbial tank, accelerating the development of a young core of players that otherwise may have been lost without him. In his lone season with the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, Paul lifted what was expected to be a lottery team to the middle of the playoff field, and a Game Seven away from advancing to the Second Round. It’s amazing what a veteran floor general can do for a team’s development, and even more so when said floor general is a future Hall of Famer; Phoenix ranks in the top-ten in points scored (114.3) and allowed (108.5), slowing down the tempo en route to becoming a far more efficient attack shooting 48.8% from the field (2nd Overall), including 56.2% from within the arc (2nd Overall) and 37.4% beyond it (9th Overall), dishing out 26.9 assists (4th Overall) in comparison to committing just 13.0 turnovers per game (5th Overall). Benefitting from his presence has been his fellow Backcourt mate, Devin Booker (25.5 PTS, 48.4% FG, 34.8% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 4.5 AST, 0.9 STL, 19.2 PER), who has thrived alongside a veteran playmaker such as Paul; the young shooter has been afforded the luxury of playing off the basketball far more than in previous years, which has led to a fresher weapon that can really do some damage from the perimeter. In addition to Booker’s improvement, (third-year Swingman) Mikal Bridges (13.1 PTS, 52.8% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.8 BLK, 15.7 PER) has developed into one of the better 3 & D players in the league, while former No. One Overall Pick, DeAndre Ayton (15.0 PTS, 62.5% FG, 10.7 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.1 BLK, 20.5 PER), is beginning to make good on his lofty his potential. Furthermore, (sharpshooting Forward) Cameron Johnson (9.9 PTS, 43.8% FG, 37.0% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 12.6 PER), has emerged as threat from the perimeter, while (journeyman Forward) Jae Crowder (9.8 PTS, 40.1% FG, 38.1% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 11.6 PER) has brought a veteran presence to the Frontcourt. Crowder though has missed the last few games with a sprained ankle, and as a result the team has slipped a bit over the past few games, with their play on the defensive end of the court proving to be biggest culprit; during this .500 stretch, Williams’ charges have allowed 114.7 points on 49.6% shooting from the field, including 39.5% from downtown, with 23.3 assists in comparison to forcing 13.2 turnovers, while getting outrebounded by 4.0 boards per game. Coincidentally, five of those six games came during their recent five-game eastern road trip, with back-to-back losses at Boston and Brooklyn showing two very different sides of themselves. Against the Celtics, they were held to a near season-low eighty-six points on 40.9% shooting, punctuated by a dismal 6-of-35 from three (17.1%), and eighteen assists opposed to seventeen turnovers, while against the Nets they simply couldn’t stop the home side who torched them for 128 points for the second time this season, the most relinquished by the Suns thus far in 2020-2021. Fortunately, another day in the Big Apple would afford them the opportunity to right the ship as the red-hot Knicks welcomed them for the final stop on this road trip…
“We wanted this one. We wanted this one bad, just for ourselves… I mean obviously we knew about the streak that they had going on and we knew that this was going to be a dogfight.”Devin Booker on the Suns’ 118-110 victory over the Knicks to end their five-game eastern road trip at 3-2, on the strength of a huge Second Half in which they shot over 60.0% from the field, with the sharpshooting Guard scoring a game-high 33 points.
When we last saw the Suns, they managed to snap their two-game losing streak with a 118-110 victory over the surging New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Monday Night, allowing them to keep pace in the race for home court in the tightly-contested Western Conference. New York would race out to an early 36-29 lead in the First Quarter, amassing a 15-point advantage at one point in the First Half, but Phoenix would gradually chip away against one of the better defensive sides in the Association, finally exploding the Second Half. Following intermission, the visitors would outscore the hosts 62-47, shooting a stellar 61.5% from the field, including 9-of-18 from beyond the arc (50.0%), assisting on half of their twenty-four field goals, with three different players scoring in double-figures. New York on the other hand, could muster just 43.2% shooting overall in the Second Half, and were ousted by twelve points from downtown during this period. In the end, the aforementioned Paul and Johnson closed the affair out, with the former scoring his team’s final seven points down the stretch, while nine of the latter’s eleven points came in the final stanza, Paul would finish with twenty points on 8-of-12 shooting (66.7%), five rebounds, six assists, and a pair of blocks, while Booker scored a game-high thirty-three points on 14-of-26 shooting (53.8%), four rebounds, and three assists. Bridges added twenty-one points on 8-of-12 shooting as well (66.7%), including 3-of-6 from three (50.0%), along with four rebounds and three assists. Ayton would go on to total nine points and thirteen rebounds. In a game in which both teams shot over 50.0% overall, Williams’ troops gained traction at the free-throw line (14-of-17) and from the perimeter (14-of-34) for a combined advantage of Plus-12 in those two areas. Phoenix also got out and pushed the tempo in scoring sixteen points in transition compared to a paltry four for New York, though the Knicks did outscore them in the paint, 52-44. Returning home, the Suns will be hoping that the third time will be the charm against the Clippers, for a third loss to Los Angeles will drop them into the Third Seed out West. Phoenix is 23-9 thus far at home this season, where they’ve outscored opponents by an average of 8.4 points per game.