EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Who is the Suns’ most difficult possible playoff matchup in 1st round?

Apr 4, 2023, 8:03 AM | Updated: 8:59 am

Devin Booker #1 and Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns stand on the court during a timeout form t...

Devin Booker #1 and Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns stand on the court during a timeout form the second half of the NBA game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Footprint Center on March 29, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Timberwolves 107-100. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns had a great weekend.

They have all but locked up the fourth seed in the Western Conference, rising above the absolute mess that will unfold just below them in the last week of the NBA season. These last six days will determine not only the remaining two playoff spots at the fifth and sixth seeds but also who Phoenix matches up with in the first round.

Basketball-Reference’s playoff probabilities have the Suns sitting at a 97.5% chance of getting the fourth seed. The fifth seed is split up amongst five teams and we’re going to go ahead and write off the 1.3% chance for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

This begs the question of how the four remaining squads match up with Phoenix.

To simplify this, we’re going to go through three categories for each group.

They are:

Current form: Giving the teams the benefit of the doubt to settle in and make trades, how well are they playing in the last two months of the season? For example, Phoenix was fifth in defensive rating for March and spent the majority of it without their core offensive piece, Kevin Durant, so the answer for them is pretty darn good. The Pelicans last year were not fair to judge before the All-Star break when they didn’t have C.J. McCollum and were terrific with him.

Defensive personnel: This is basically, “Can you guard a team with Durant, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Chris Paul on it?” More specifically, analyzing the potential individual matchups and seeing if a weak link emerges. If the latter is the case, as the great Charles Barkley says, that team is in trouble. Bonus points if you have multiple options to throw at Durant and Booker.

Continuity and experience: This is both a negative and positive for the Suns. They will have a maximum of 10 games together with Durant in the fold and feature two new starters compared to the previous two campaigns. With that in mind, Paul, Booker and Ayton are incredibly battle-tested together. Durant and Paul, in particular, have tremendous amounts of playoff experience. Durant has two championships (and two Finals MVPs) while Paul’s 142 career playoff games are only 13 shy of Durant’s 155. Is there a team out there with both the continuity and experience edge? I know who you’re thinking of.

Hot take — I don’t think there’s a crazy-big gap here between the top threat or a clear-cut ideal matchup for Phoenix. All four present their own strengths and weaknesses and I think the (healthy) Suns would take care of all of ’em. If there is an opportunity for shenanigans this weekend to avoid the Suns, they will be done.

For the sake of the argument, though, I’ll rank them based on who I believe is the toughest draw.

We start with the obvious.

1. Golden State Warriors

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Record: 41-38 Offensive rating: T-13th (114.5) Defensive rating: T-18th (113.8) Odds to finish 5th: 17.6%

Current form: The Warriors, like last regular season, are an enigma. They are 15-14 since Feb. 1, ranking 11th in offense and 16th in defense. What would have settled some nerves in the Bay was Golden State picking up some wins on the road — but it’s 2-12 over that stretch. For the year, it is 9-30 away from home and has the third-worst defensive rating. The Detroit Pistons are 16-62 and have two fewer road wins (7-32). Unless you want to look at tiny sample sizes like a specific game where they impressed you, the defending champs look very vulnerable.

Defensive personnel: This is where the Warriors make up ground, though. With the return of Andrew Wiggins coming, he and the still-defending-at-an-elite-level Draymond Green can flip around the ball-handling trio of Booker, Durant and Paul. Herein lies the issue, however, and how it’ll probably be Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson on Paul. That would make Paul’s two-man game with Ayton critical, and Golden State’s been great at forcing Ayton to beat ’em. Gary Payton II could wind up being a big-time X-Factor in the series because of this. He’s a tremendous defender who could take Paul and Booker for stretches. Jonathan Kuminga isn’t seasoned enough to be trusted with a high-profile matchup but he would get physical and be a pest. Bonus points are allotted.

Continuity and experience: Pretty self-explanatory here why Golden State runs away with this category compared to the field. It’s a top-three dynasty in the history of the sport with a few accentuating pieces that have been along for previous rides, like Payton for last year’s championship and Kevon Looney since 2018. The Suns are the better team. But when Phoenix is up 2-1 in the series and has a five-point lead in the fourth quarter on the road, Golden State will both not be fazed and know exactly what it is doing on the floor during those pivotal half-dozen moments that swing a series, locking into a level that brings out title-caliber basketball. Are the Suns capable of achieving that? We’re just going to wait and see.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Record: 40-38 Offensive rating: T-20th (113.7) Defensive rating: 11th (113.2) Odds to finish 5th: 16.9%

Current form: I’m putting these guys here primarily for this reason: In the last two months, the Lakers have the NBA’s fourth-best defense. Their trade deadline moves balanced out their roster, putting ace defender Jarred Vanderbilt alongside Anthony Davis, forming a tremendous defensive frontcourt. Davis anchoring around capable supporting pieces made that happen, even while LeBron James was out for nearly all of March. They are 25-17 since the turn of the new year, a legitimately good basketball team. Los Angeles has the type of defensive backbone behind Davis that none of the other three teams possess, and Davis individually is playing as good of basketball as anyone right now.

Defensive personnel: This solely comes down to James. He is more prone than ever to falling asleep off the ball and is allergic to secondary efforts. Granted, we haven’t seen him in big postseason outings in awhile. Would he be up for the task, challenging Durant and navigating through Phoenix’s off-ball actions around the elbow and other places? Or is he just going to rest while defending Josh Okogie in the corner? There’s no way of knowing, but he’s still capable of being a great defender. Elsewhere, Vanderbilt took on Booker in the last matchup, but that was without Durant. Is D’Angelo Russell supposed to guard Paul? Dennis Schroder? Austin Reaves? The Lakers would run into issues individually and would need the team defense to clean it up (which I think it is capable of).

Continuity and experience: A playoff series can go seven games. Davis and James have not started seven games straight together all season. The closest they got is five. Last year, too, with just a six-game streak. That matters. Can’t just turn it on and off when the lights get bright. While Davis and James both have the combination of continuity and experience together, the rest of the roster is unproven. As much as I love Vanderbilt, he can’t shoot and will get schemed out at a certain level. Reaves has had a great year but he’s never seen playoff basketball and is in his second season. Schroder is the only other member of the rotation that has seen a deep playoff run and he’s been bounced in the first round on his last four trips. Still, the Lakers have Davis and James, the NBA’s best one-two punch when fully operational. That also matters.

3. New Orleans Pelicans

(Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Record: 40-38 Offensive rating: T-18th (113.9) Defensive rating: T-5th (111.8) Odds to finish 5th: 24.5%

Current form: New Orleans has won seven of its last eight games to get back in the mix and while some of it included soft opposition, it more importantly featured Brandon Ingram putting his cape on. Ingram over those eight games averaged 30.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 8.5 assists per game while shooting 53.2% from the field and 45.0% at 3-point range. Suns fans saw last postseason how good this guy’s postseason debut was, and he’s gone up a few levels from that form in the last two-plus weeks. The Pelicans are the only team of the four to rank in the top-10 offensively or defensively, and that defensive rating has been rock solid all year, ranking sixth since Feb. 1 as well.

Defensive personnel: Remember when McCollum or Ingram could guard Mikal Bridges last year? That’s not happening now! Herb Jones was able to successfully poke and prod Paul with full-court pressure, but it’s going to have be either him or Ingram on Durant. The other guy takes Booker, probably Jones. Josh Richardson was a deadline pickup that’s a solid secondary piece on one of the ball-handlers and we know Jose Alvarado is begging the basketball gods to give him another crack at Paul. Trey Murphy III starts where Zion Williamson would if he’s healthy, and maybe Willie Green trusts him enough to go on Booker or Durant so Jones can keep nagging Paul. If Williamson starts, though? That would be problematic defensively.

Continuity and experience: Toss a bit of the Suns’ edge here out the window given how well we know these two teams match up stylistically, the ol’ matching battering rams thanks to Green knowing what Phoenix does because he was previously Monty Williams’ lead assistant. The unknown is Williamson, who will be re-evaluated at some point this week. While he’s a top 20 player when healthy, Williamson and Ingram have started a dozen games together the last two years. New Orleans is moving and grooving with Ingram at the moment. Then again, it will always feel the void Williamson leaves, particularly in a matchup against a star-powered group like the Suns.

4. Los Angeles Clippers

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Record: 41-38 Offensive rating: T-20th (113.7) Defensive rating: 15th (113;5) Odds to finish 5th: 38.2%

Current form: As you can tell by those offensive and defensive numbers, the Clippers have not been very good this year. They were 14th in defensive rating for March, bouncing back from finishing in the bottom third for both January and February. The offense in 2023 has been ninth after Los Angeles was a putrid 28th over the 38 games in the 2022 portion of this season. Some of this has been aided by Russell Westbrook, who has surprisingly been kind of great? He’s posting 15.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 7.8 assists and 3.5 turnovers a night with a 48.4% knockdown rate on field goals.

Defensive personnel: Paul George’s status for the playoffs is a mystery after a knee injury. If he’s in, the Clippers are the only team in the West that can throw its two best players on Phoenix’s: George on Booker and Kawi Leonard taking Durant. That would be quite fun to watch. If George is out, Terance Mann already has experience guarding Paul and Booker in the playoffs from the 2021 Western Conference Finals. Westbrook, however, has been a big-time defensive liability for a while now, and Phoenix wouldn’t allow Los Angeles’ solution to be as simple as hiding him on Okogie. Out of all these teams, Westbrook is the most obvious pigeon, a.k.a. the player the Suns would attack defensively. Nic Batum was moved into the starting lineup recently in place of Marcus Morris Sr. and he’d take on the fullcourt assignment guarding Paul, like he did for portions of the 2021 series. Norman Powell and Robert Covington are fine enough alternative pieces to mix in.

Continuity and experience: It’s tough to peg down exactly how to grade the Clippers here. As previously mentioned, a portion of this group won a pair of playoff series together two years ago. But only George, Morris, Mann, Batum and Ivica Zubac remain from that team. Leonard has only played 49 games this year. George will end at 56. It’s a veteran-heavy group, though, and it deserves points for that, even though it’s a struggle to pick out its obvious best five-man lineup.

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