Suns-Clippers series preview, Pt. 2: Phoenix’s decisive advantages
Apr 11, 2023, 8:34 AM | Updated: 12:40 pm
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
I think the Phoenix Suns are going to win the NBA championship this June.
A lot of this is going to be predicated on how much they can learn on the road there, using their first handful of postseason games as experience to improve on-court flow.
Phoenix is 8-0 with Kevin Durant. The number to spotlight is not the zero. Two of the three most impressive wins were against organizations competing for biggest tire fire right now, the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves. The third was versus the 40-42 Oklahoma City Thunder.
Eight games are not much time ahead of the playoffs. Any kinks that still need to be worked out have to be sorted quickly.
This is the Suns’ biggest weakness at the moment.
But Phoenix’s disadvantage won’t even be an advantage for its opponent because the Los Angeles Clippers are working on their own continuity to establish.
The Suns’ projected starting five heading into the series has played 128 minutes, according to NBA.com. Los Angeles’ with buyout addition Russell Westbrook, trade deadline addition Eric Gordon, Kawhi Leonard, new starter Nic Batum and Ivica Zubac has 83 minutes in five games. Even that lineup with the injured Paul George in for Gordon and old starter Marcus Morris Sr. in for Batum got to just 112 minutes in seven games.
If we stray away from the newbies and go with just the more established tenures for the trios of Leonard, Batum and Zubac compared to Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, Phoenix’s group has played 690 minutes together this season to Los Angeles’ 314. If we go over the last three years, it’s 2,826 minutes to 555.
With less than two weeks left in the regular season, Clippers head coach Ty Lue moved Batum into a starting role for Morris. Morris, an everyday starter the last three years, has seen his ability at the age of 33 drop off, particularly on defense. It’s the right move. Batum is a better all-around piece to accompany Los Angeles’ more high-usage players and the Clippers needed a shake-up.
This is the latest move in a chain of them — moves made responding to stagnation. It’s a response to an underachieving regular season featuring both the Clippers’ offense and defense suffering brutal stretches.
Up until Christmas, 34 games in, the Clippers were 28th in offensive rating. And over a 26-game stretch from mid-January to mid-March, Los Angeles was tied for 25th in defensive rating, per NBA.com. Things weren’t working consistently on both sides of the ball for pretty much the full season.
It is unknown whether Morris returns to the rotation because a stint in health and safety protocols and back soreness sidelined him for the last seven games of the regular season when the change was made.
If you think the Suns’ injury-riddled year with a blockbuster trade thrown in has been a roller coaster, Los Angeles’ roster shuffling has been musical chairs.
The Clippers bailed on John Wall. Ditto with Reggie Jackson, which I’m sure is going to be a relief to casual Suns fans that didn’t follow the Clippers this season but saw the damage he did in the 2021 Western Conference Finals.
Los Angeles swapped out Luke Kennard for Gordon. It ditched the idea of Zubac as the only center in the rotation and added Mason Plumlee, going away from one of the core pieces of their identity as a five-out, small-ball team across stretches of games. Westbrook was the Wall replacement. Second-year guard Bones Hyland was acquired from the Denver Nuggets as the Jackson replacement.
Morris played the third-most minutes for L.A. in the Western Conference Finals two years ago, trailing just Jackson and George. All three of those guys could wind up not playing one this go-around.
For all those reasons, George’s knee injury is an absolute killer, even if he misses just a few games of the series. This group is desperate for the stability that two star-caliber players bring.
It also puts them in an awful spot from a matchup perspective. And that’s where we get to the Suns’ biggest strength, which is going to be a problem for Los Angeles.
Assuming Leonard takes Durant and Zubac marks Ayton, that leaves Batum, Gordon and Westbrook. Who is going to defend Booker and (the suddenly looking more like himself in the last month) Paul?
Now, give Batum credit. He’s 34 years old but nimble and spends a fair share of his time harassing primary ball handlers fullcourt as he has with Paul in the past. That matchup will not work out all game long, though. And then that leaves two defensive liabilities in Gordon or Westbrook to take on Booker.
This is why it would make a lot of sense if Lue shifted his lineup to include Terance Mann, who strangely moved to the bench when the new guards rolled in. Mann did well in helping Patrick Beverley pester Booker the 2021 series when the best two-guard on planet Earth struggled (to his standards and through a broken nose).
Perhaps Batum could take Durant so Leonard could spend time on Booker, but I do not think that would go particularly well for the Frenchman and his squad.
There’s still the issue of Zubac’s ball screen coverage against an all-time trio of midrange scoring, too.
Zubac’s drop coverage — meaning he’s going to sit back in the paint when his man sets a screen — has been a delight specifically for Paul to deal with in the past. In the 2021 playoff series, Paul was coming off having COVID-19 and wasn’t shooting well to start but he was finding the most comfort against Zubac. This was before his 16-for-24, 41-point onslaught in the series-clinching Game 6.
Something to notice about those clips is that it’s either Mann or George defending Paul. The 18-year vet explained at the end of March how a one-two defensive tandem like Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels would now be too busy with Booker and Durant to spend much time, if any, on him.
“Now point guards actually guard me,” Paul said.
It would be huge for L.A. if former First Team All-Defense honoree Robert Covington could add something to this series as a switchable defender. But like Morris, time has not been friendly to him, either. Norman Powell has had good spurts of defense over his career but he’s out there for his offense these days, like Gordon and Westbrook.
We knew at the time of the Durant trade that there would be certain matchups where an opposing roster would be ill-equipped to have enough across the board. On paper at least, the Clippers appear to be one.
Lue’s feel for mid-series adjustments is well documented. He’s going to have his work cut out for him in this one to figure out concepts and schemes to slow down the Suns’ barrage of on-ball talent.