10:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Clippers -1.0, Over/Under:226.5
With the postseason a week away, a potential first round matchup and rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals is on tap from the City of Angels, as the resilient Los Angeles Clippers play host to the NBA-best Phoenix Suns from crypto.com Center in Los Angeles, California. Proving themselves to be no one-year-wonder, the Suns (63-16, 1st in Western Conference) have established themselves as the overwhelming favorite to come out of the West and return to the NBA Finals after very nearly earning their first O’Brien trophy in franchise history last summer. After improving by a whopping SEVENTEEN games last year, Phoenix has ascended to another level this season, posting a franchise record in wins (63) with three games yet to play. Spending much of the campaign comfortably in first place, (Head Coach) Monty Williams & Co have earned the luxury of taking a step back and resting a bit down this final stretch, for in amassing a seven-game lead in the standings, they’ve already clinched homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. And it’s with that said that that particular mandate has already been issued to the team, who after going 14-4 since the All-Star Break, followed a nine-game winning streak with back-to-back losses for only the third time all season. However, while many prominent members of their rotation sat out those two defeats, including the likes of (All-Star Guard) Devin Booker (26.7 PTS, 46.5% FG, 38.3% 3FG, 86.6% FT, 5.0 REB, 4.9 AST, 1.1 STL, 21.4 PER), (emerging Center) Deandre Ayton (17.2 PTS, 63.8% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 74.6% FT, 10.2 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.7 BLK, 22.0 PER), and (veteran Swingman) Jae Crowder (9.5 PTS, 40.0% FG, 34.9% 3FG, 78.9% FT, 5.2 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.4 STL, 11.4 PER), they would return to full strength in last night’s 121-110 bludgeoning of the Lakers, which just so happened to eliminate their division rivals from any opportunity of making the play-in tournament. Indeed, it must have felt like a cruel twist of fate for Los Angeles, who after watching the outcome of the Spurs/Nuggets were forced into a do-or-die scenario without the presence of the NBA’s leading scorer, LeBron James, who continued to be sidelined once again with an ailing ankle. Phoenix though, had nothing to play for having already clinched homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, and could have thrown LA a bone on Tuesday night. Needless to say, that was NOT going to happen. After last year’s first round encounter and some fairly contentious meetings this season, it appeared that Williams’ troops relished the opportunity to put the Lakers out of their misery, which is precisely what they did; after weathering a spirited first quarter from the visitors, the Suns would turn up the heat over the course of the second and third periods, outscoring them 70-49, and in the end shot a stellar 49.0% from the field, including 14-of-39 from beyond the arc (35.9%), assisted on THIRTY-EIGHT of their fifty field goals in comparison to committing fourteen turnovers, and outrebounded them 53-46. The home side also turned Los Angeles’ sixteen turnovers into twenty-four points, edged them 21-14 in transition, and held the advantage in points in the paint as well (56-46). After sitting out a 117-96 loss at the lowly Thunder, Booker returned with a fury to bury the Lakers, scoring a game-high thirty-two points on 12-of-22 shooting (54.5%), including a torrid 6-of-9 from downtown (66.7%), along with seven rebounds and four assists, while Ayton added twenty-two points on 10-of-14 shooting (71.4%) and thirteen rebounds. As for (All-Star Point Guard) Chris Paul (PER), he finished with just six points on 3-of-7 shooting (42.9%) in little over twenty-three minutes of action, though nonetheless managed to dish out a dozen assists in the affair, making his sixth consecutive start after missing the first fifteen games post-All-Star Break with a broken right thumb. It’s no coincidence that the Suns’ rise began as soon as the veteran arrived eighteen months ago, for even at the ripe old age of thirty-six, Paul has proven once again capable of raising the level of those around him. And that’s been the biggest reason for this team’s success: their internal growth has been off the charts. Booker had been a strong performer for a few years pre-CP3, only to blossom into a bonafide superstar alongside the maestro, while the likes of Ayton, Johnson, and (3 & D extraordinaire) Mikal Bridges (14.4 PTS, 53.4% FG, 37.0% 3FG, 82.8% FT, 4.3 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.5 BLK, 14.5 PER) have all grown exponentially. As a result, this team is just really @#$%!^& good; Phoenix ranks third in the National Basketball Association in both Offensive (115.0) and Defensive (107.2) Rating, leading to the best Net Rating (+7.8) in the league, while ranking third in effective field goal percentage (offense) at 55.2%, eighth in turnover percentage (11.6%), and first in overall field goal percentage (48.7%). Furthermore, they allow an effective field goal percentage of just 50.9% (2nd Overall) and force a turnover on 13.0% of their opponents’ possessions, eighth-best in the NBA. Essentially, this group plays extremely controlled, efficient basketball, with both Booker and Paul proving to be absolute killers with the game on the line. However, the biggest difference between this team and the one that came up short in last summer’s NBA Finals is depth; the additions of Shamet and (veteran Center) JaVale McGee (9.3 PTS, 63.5% FG, 71.7% FT, 6.6 REB, 0.6 AST, 0.3 STL, 1.1 BLK, 23.2 PER), coupled with the return of (reserve Forward) Torrey Craig (6.7 PTS, 45.6% FG, 31.2% 3FG, 70.6% FT, 4.3 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.9 STL, 11.3 PER) at the Trade Deadline, has afforded Williams with a MUCH deeper rotation that now goes 10+ deep, making them bigger and more physical, which should come in handy if they happen to return to the Finals and match wits with any of the East’s bruising contenders. Granted, coaches generally shorten their rotations considerably during the postseason, but in this case, the 50-year-old has plenty of options.
Meanwhile, given how their intown rivals dominated the headlines this season for all the wrong reasons, we’d forgive you for overlooking the Clippers (39-40, 8th in Western Conference), who despite playing without the two biggest guns in their arsenal for large swaths of the campaign have nonetheless persevered in booking a trip to the play-in tournament. A year after advancing to their first Western Conference Finals in franchise history, Los Angeles came into the 2021-2022 campaign without the services of (All-NBA Forward) Kawhi Leonard, who suffered a partial tear to his ACL in his team’s Western Semifinals matchup with the Jazz and has thus missed the entirety of this season rehabbing from said injury. Granted, there was hope for (Head Coach) Ty Lue’s charges without the two-time NBA Finals MVP, for the Clips managed to rally and win the final two games of that series without him, while giving the Suns everything they could handle in that aforementioned Conference Finals matchup. Getting off to a solid 17-9 start, LA was dealt another MAJOR blow in the form of (All-Star Swingman) Paul George (24.6 PTS, 41.9% FG, 34.3% 3FG, 86.7% FT, 6.8 REB, 5.5 AST, 2.1 STL, 18.0 PER), who suffered a torn UCL in his right elbow, on Christmas Day no less, and would go on to miss FORTY-THREE consecutive games before finally making his return eight days ago. Now, nobody would fault this team for packing it in and tanking the rest of the way, but that simply wasn’t the case for Lue & Co who have done nothing short of an admirable job in remaining competitive without the likes of Leonard and George. So, what in the name of Loy Vaught has gotten into the Clippers, you ask? Well, if you needed further validation that Lue is a REALLY good coach, then look no further than his current work; known primarily as an offensive strategist, the 44-year-old has done a masterful job of maintaining his troops’ defensive pedigree even without two of the most prominent two-way players in the NBA, as Los Angeles ranks eleventh in points allowed (108.8) and tenth in defensive rating (110.5), while yielding a 45.2% field goal percentage (7th Overall), along with a 51.5% shooting from within the arc (5th Overall) and 34.6% beyond it (10th Overall). Furthermore, they’ve been very disciplined in terms of not putting their opponents on the charity stripe, committing the seventh-fewest personal fouls in the league (18.7), leading to the fourth-lowest free-throw/field goal attempt ratio (.170). And then there are the various members of the supporting cast who have stepped in to fill the void left by their more heralded teammates. (Journeyman Guard) Reggie Jackson (17.1 PTS, 39.2% FG, 32.9% 3FG, 84.7% FT, 3.6 REB, 4.9 AST, 0.7 STL, 12.4 PER) has truly found a home in the City of Angels, posting his highest averages in scoring (17.1), rebounds (3.6), and assists (4.9) since 2015-2016, all the while knocking down 166 three-pointers, which is eight shy of his career-high. That same notion applies to fellow journeyman, Marcus Morris (15.6 PTS, 43.8% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 86.9% FT, 4.5 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.5 STL, 14.1 PER), who in enjoying his longest tenure with any of the six franchises that he has played for, continues to do the dirty work on both ends of the court. And then there are the younger members of the rotation, who have made the most of the opportunity granted to them, including (athletic Swingman) Terance Mann (10.9 PTS, 48.5% FG, 36.1% 3FG, 78.0% FT, 5.3 REB, 2.6 AST, 0.7 STL, PER) and (underrated Center) Ivica Zubac (10.2 PTS, 62.4% FG, 72.9% FT, 8.4 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.5 STL, 1.0 BLK, PER). Lastly, Lue and (Lead Executive) Lawrence Frank added reinforcements at the Trade Deadline, acquiring the services of (versatile Guard) Norman Powell (21.0 PTS, 47.6% FG, 42.9% 3FG, 85.0% FT, 3.0 REB, 4.0 AST, 0.7 STL, 24.8 PER), and (former Clippers Guard) Eric Bledsoe (9.9 PTS, 42.1% FG, 31.3% 3FG, 76.1% FT, 3.4 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.3 STL, 12.6 PER), though Powell would play just three games before suffering a sprained toe that has since sidelined him indefinitely. Add it all up, and you have a unit that was just frothing at the mouth to get one of their stars back, and since George has returned to the starting lineup, they’ve run off three victories in four games, settling rather comfortably into the West’s eighth seed. Over their last four outings, Los Angeles has exploded offensively for an average of 130.8 points on a torrid 51.9% shooting from the field, including 47.2% from downtown, while dishing out a healthy 28.5 assists in comparison to committing only 9.8 turnovers, with George in turn posting 23.7 points on 40.0% shooting, including 52.0% from three, 3.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists, and 3.0 steals in suiting up for three of those games. When we last saw them, the Clips hammered (fellow play-in participant) the Pelicans, 119-100 on Sunday night, thanks in large part to a 29-13 second quarter in which they simply smothered the visitors into submission. The hosts shot 47.4% overall, 21-of-44 from deep (47.7%) and assisted on thirty-three of their forty-five field goals. Seven different players scored in double-figures, led by Morris with twenty-two points, while Zubac logged a double-double with sixteen points and fourteen rebounds. That victory further entrenched LA in eighth place, trailing the Timberwolves by six games in the standings and leading New Orleans by 4.5. Depending on how the play-in tourney plays out, there is a potential future in which these franchises once again cross paths in the playoffs, with Phoenix set to face the lowest seeded remaining side. The Clippers have won one of their three meetings this season, though none of those affairs featured either Leonard or George. According to reports out of Los Angeles, Kawhi is indeed ahead of schedule on his rehab and there is a chance that he could in fact suit up for the postseason, which needless to say would be a MAJOR boost for a side that has harbored legitimate championship aspirations when at full strength. Now we’re not trying to put the cart before the horse, folks, but this team’s size and length on the perimeter, particularly when Leonard and George are healthy, matches up quite well with the Suns and could cause problems for the reigning Western Conference Champions, who in all honesty would probably prefer to face anyone else at the beginning of the postseason.