The NBA’s Western Conference finals showdown between the Phoenix Suns and LA Clippers will begin without two of the league’s biggest stars.
Suns guard Chris Paul, who remains in the league’s health and safety protocols, has been ruled out of Game 1 (3:30 p.m. ET on ABC) and Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard did not travel with the team to Phoenix as he continues to deal with a sprained right knee.
But don’t worry, there’s plenty of star power kicking off this series — and maybe even a star in the making.
What does Terance Mann, fresh off 39 points in the Clippers’ closeout win over the Utah Jazz, have for an encore as he steps in for Leonard? Can Paul George continue to lead LA after living up to his “Playoff P” nickname during the West semifinals?
And after a week off, will Devin Booker deliver like he did in series wins over the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets?
Our experts are breaking down each team’s path to the series and the keys that could decide who reaches the NBA Finals.
MORE: Full NBA playoffs schedule, results and news
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
How the Suns got here:
The road to their first Western Conference finals since 2010 might’ve seemed like an easy one, but for the Suns, it was tougher than it appeared.
The Lakers loomed in the first round as just about the scariest No. 7 seed possible, a cruel reward for Phoenix having their best regular season in more than a decade. Drawing the short straw against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending champions felt like a potential recipe for an early, frustrating exit and an unfortunate end that prevented a proper evaluation of how good the Suns actually were.
The Suns fell down 2-1 in that series, and with Paul’s shoulder ailing, it was another page of the basketball gods having some weird problem with the Point God. But Paul’s shoulder improved while the Lakers’ got worse as Davis battled a groin issue. Phoenix turned the series around, winning Game 4 on the road to even the series, setting the table for a rout in the all-pivotal Game 5 and eventually Devin Booker’s coming-to-age true superstar arrival moment where he dropped 47 in a series closeout Game 6.
With the Nuggets and league MVP Nikola Jokic next, Paul’s physical improvement was critical. All he did was carve Denver up in one of the most ruthlessly efficient performances ever. The 36-year-old averaged 25.5 points on 62% shooting, 58% from 3, didn’t miss a free throw and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 41-to-5 for the series. The Suns were dominant, winning the first three games by an average of 18.6 points. Jokic got tossed in Game 4, but it was already too late to avoid the sweep.
Now the Suns, and Paul, are back in the realm of uncertainty: Paul remains in the league’s health and safety protocols. He will return for the series at some point, but it’s a question of when, and where the situation will stand. Phoenix’s youngsters have been impressive so far, but they, along with Booker, will need to grow up more than ever as they wait for Paul’s return.
— Royce Young
How the Clippers got here:
One postseason ago, the Clippers couldn’t hold onto a lead, collapsing under the full weight of the playoff pressure in the bubble to blow a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets. This year, things are completely opposite for the Clippers.
They’re now the ones who make the history-making comebacks, breaking through a half a century of heartache, playoff collapses and cursed seasons on Friday when the Clippers won Game 6 at Staples Center to reach their first-ever Western Conference Finals.
And the Clippers are here in scorching Phoenix for Game 1 because they simply refuse to wilt, no matter how hot things get. The Clippers are the first team in NBA history to overcome a 2-0 deficit in multiple series in the same postseason.
They blew the first two games at home to Dallas in the first round, trailed by 30-11 in the first quarter of Game 3 in Dallas before somehow storming back and taking four of the remaining five games to win the series in seven games.
And again, the Clippers lost the first two games of the second round in Utah before winning four straight. And even more impressive was the fact that they won the last two games against Utah without Leonard, who is out indefinitely with a sprained right knee.
Unlike last postseason, the Clippers have made all the right adjustments under head coach Tyronn Lue’s tactful eye. When they were perhaps a couple of bad plays away from going down 3-0 in Dallas, Lue quickly inserted Nicolas Batum in for Ivica Zubac to go to a smaller and more switchable defensive lineup against Mavericks star Luka Doncic. The move turned that series, forcing now-former Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle to try to counter by starting little-used Boban Marjanovic.
And against Utah, Lue’s small lineup worked wonders again, this time neutralizing the three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. With Leonard out, the 6-foot-5 Terance Mann started and scored 39 points in Game 6, igniting the biggest second-half comeback in a series-clinching game — erasing a 25-point deficit at the start of the third.
“It’s a whole new 2021 season,” said Reggie Jackson, who has been a clutch performer for the Clippers. “And so that’s all that’s been on the front of our mind is figuring out how we can be the best team we can this year… and then try to be the last one standing.
“Fortunately we have ourselves a chance and we are going to play a great team in Phoenix. But for us, we don’t want the journey to end here.”
— Ohm Youngmisuk
Series keys: How big can Ayton be, and the Clippers’ bench question
The Clippers’ smallball lineups present a different challenge for the Suns than they faced in wins over the Lakers and Nuggets, who played conventionally with centers on the court in the first two rounds. That created opportunities for Booker and Paul in the pick-and-roll, particularly against Denver’s drop coverages. Paul averaged 1.15 points per direct ball screen vs. the Nuggets according to Second Spectrum tracking, a rate that would have ranked second among regulars during the regular season.
Assuming they stick with the lineups that finished their series against the Mavericks and Jazz with no player taller than the 6-foot-8 duo of Batum and Marcus Morris Sr., the Clippers will try to slow down Phoenix’s pick-and-roll attack with frequent switches. They’ve switched more picks than any other team in the playoffs per Second Spectrum, and have done so 43% of the time with Zubac on the bench. Meanwhile, opponents have switched against the Suns just 11% of the time thus far.
Certainly, Booker and Paul have the ability to make plays 1-on-1 against switches in the same way that Donovan Mitchell did for Utah. Still, for the math to work out in Phoenix’s favor, Ayton will need to make the Clippers pay for their lack of size in the paint. He’s a more skilled big man than the Clippers dealt with in the first two rounds, having mashed the Lakers for 21.7 PPG on 82% shooting in the opening three games of that series.
Ayton’s offensive rebounding will be particularly key. He’s secured nearly one in 10 Suns misses in the playoffs and may need to improve on that against the Clippers.
Deandre Ayton cheers along with Suns fans after helping the team clinch a Western Conference finals berth.
In another way, the conference finals is a similar matchup for Phoenix to the second-round win over Denver: A short-handed team trying to keep up with the Suns’ attack. That proved impossible for the Nuggets, who played the entire series without injured guard Jamal Murray, began it without starting wing Will Barton and had Michael Porter Jr. playing through a back injury that limited him.
Much like Denver in the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Clippers were able to overcome the loss of Leonard for the final two games of the series with a knee injury thanks to unexpected contributions from role players. Jackson, currently working on a playoff 50-40-90 campaign, has been outstanding throughout the postseason and Mann gave the Clippers an incredible lift as Leonard’s replacement in the starting five. If not for Mann’s 39-point Game 6, the Clippers are probably preparing for a deciding game in Salt Lake City right now.
As with the Nuggets, sustainability is the question for the Clippers. Austin Rivers, who made 48% of his 3s in the first round, saw that slip to 27% against Phoenix. Backup guard Monte Morris went from .560 true shooting to .482. Unless Kawhi is able to return in this series, the Clippers can’t likely afford similar regression from Jackson and Mann.
Provided Paul is able to play, the Suns present fewer promising places to attack 1-on-1 than the Jazz’s starting lineup, which was built around Gobert cleaning up messes in the paint — something he found more challenging against the Clippers’ five-out attack. Phoenix isn’t as reliant on Ayton for rim protection and will depend more on Paul and Mikal Bridges containing their opponents in the hope of keeping the Clippers away from the paint.
— Kevin Pelton