There is plenty at stake as the Phoenix Suns face off against the LA Clippers in the Western Conference Finals.
The Clippers reached the Conference Finals stage for the first time in franchise history despite losing All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard with the series tied 2-2 against the Utah Jazz. The Suns return to the Conference Finals stage for the first time since 2010 - the last time the franchise reached the postseason prior to this year - by way of a sweep of the Denver Nuggets.
Buckle up for a good series ahead.
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Game 1 - Sunday, June 20 - 3:30 p.m. ET
Game 2 - Tuesday, June 22 - 9:00 p.m. ET
Game 3 - Thursday, June 24 - 9:00 p.m. ET
Game 4 - Saturday, June 26 - 9:00 p.m. ET
Game 5 (if necessary) - Monday, June 28 - 9:00 p.m. ET
Game 6 (if necessary) - Wednesday, June 30 - 9:00 p.m. ET
Game 7 (if necessary) - Friday, July 2 - 9:00 p.m. ET
Result: Clippers won 2-1
Best game: Jan. 3, 2021 - Clippers 112, Suns 107
Best performance: Paul George (Jan. 3, 2021) - 39 points (15-24 FG, 7-10 3PT), four assists, three rebounds, two steals
The Clippers may have won the season series against the Suns, but all three games were ultra competitive.
The best of the trio of matchups came in each team's seventh game of the season, where Paul George erupted for 39 points on seven made 3-pointers to overcome a strong 25 points from Devin Booker and 24 points from Deandre Ayton.
The second matchup came much later in the season on April 8, where the Clippers got another stellar 33-point performance from George, who again knocked down seven 3-pointers to hold off a 24-point outing from Booker.
And while it's significant that George - the lone star for the Clippers for the time-being, given Kawhi Leonard's injury status - was at his best in each of the three matchups against the Suns in the regular season, it's also worth noting the only game Phoenix won was the one against LA without Leonard.
In that third and final game, which came on April 28, the Suns put the Clippers away behind 28 points and 10 assists from Chris Paul. George still got his with a 25-point, 10-rebound double-double, but LA didn't have enough firepower to keep up with Phoenix's depth.
Of course, Paul's status is also up in the air for the start of the Conference Finals series after entering the league's health and safety protocols, but he is expected to return much sooner than Leonard, who may not play in the series at all.
Key Storyline: When will either team have their absent All-Star return to the lineup?
Injuries and health and safety protocols have riddled the entire 2020-21 season and postseason and that couldn't be more reflective in the Western Conference Finals.
The Suns are expected to begin the series without All-Star guard Chris Paul, who entered the league's health and safety protocols after reportedly testing positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, June 16.
Paul was unstoppable in Phoenix's series sweep of the Denver Nuggets, averaging 25.5 points, 10.3 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game while shooting a unfathomably efficient 62.7 percent from the field and 75.0 percent from 3. He was a midrange maestro and only turned the ball over a total five times in four games (for an assist-to-turnover ratio of 41-to-5), putting together the best playoff series of his illustrious career.
While there hasn't been an update as to exactly when Paul can return to the lineup, he is expected to play at some point in the Conference Finals with an opportunity to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in his career.
As for All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard, the future is a bit more murky. Leonard suffered a knee injury that caused him to miss the final two games of the Conference Semifinals, although Paul George and company stepped up to advance the Clippers anyway. There were reports that Leonard may have suffered an ACL injury, which would certainly sideline him for the remainder of the postseason, but the latest report suggests that Leonard needs more imaging done on his knee and has to wait until the swelling goes down.
Leonard was equally as incredible as Paul has been this postseason, averaging 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 57.3 percent from the field and 39.3 percent from 3.
The uncertainty is gloomy for Clippers fans praying on Leonard's return, while the Suns fans can at least rely on Paul to take the floor eventually in the series.
Which ever star makes their return first could make all the difference in which team advances to the NBA Finals.
Four players to watch
Paul George and Devin Booker
As already mentioned, George torched the Suns during the regular season.
George averaged 32.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting a blistering 56.3 percent from the field and 60.7 percent from beyond the arc, knocking down seven threes in two of the three contests. With Leonard out of the lineup, much more attention will be drawn to the Clippers' other All-NBA forward. Suns rising star wing Mikal Bridges defended George more than any other player in the NBA this season, holding him to just 11 points on 3-of-9 shooting from the field in roughly 51 possessions, according to the NBA's matchup data. It was against the remainder of the Phoenix roster where George found his success, so expect Bridges to be stuck like glue to the All-Star forward.
As for Booker, he also scored with ease in the regular season against his upcoming foe, averaging 23.3 points shooting 48.9 percent from the field. Where Booker struggled against the Clippers was from beyond the arc, shooting just 18.2 percent over three matchups. George was his primary matchup in those meetings, going for 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field in 26.5 partial possessions, according to the NBA's matchup data.
It will be interesting to see if head coach Tyronn Lue chooses to use George as a Booker stopper in this series, given the workload he will be expected to shoulder on the offensive end with Leonard out of the lineup.
Either way, expect a star studded matchup between two of the smoothest scorers in the NBA, trying to lift their teams to the NBA Finals stage in the absence of key teammates.
Cameron Payne and Terance Mann
X-factors play a big role in any playoff series, as we saw in Terance Mann's Game 6 performance against the Jazz to lift the Clippers from down 25 points to a victory.
Mann was unstoppable in that series-closing bout, going off for a career-best 39 points, 20 of which came in a pivotal third quarter that swung the momentum of the game and led LA to the victory. The 24-year-old, second-year wing was the reliable fill-in starter for the Clippers 10 times throughout the season, often a candidate for an uptick in minutes should George or Leonard need rest or miss games due to injury.
Will he continue to step up and provide a jolt of offence in a time of need on the Conference Finals stage?
And then there's Payne, who was electric in the Suns' first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, averaging 12.5 points and 3.3 assists per game while shooting 42.3 percent from 3. He wasn't needed as much in the second-round series given how fantastic Paul was, but he still provided a calming presence in the time his veteran needed a rest.
Now with Paul expected to miss the start of the series, it will be Payne who is expected to fill the starting point guard role. Can he hold down the role of a floor general and make winning plays to keep the Suns afloat until Paul returns? The answer to that question could play a big role in where the series stands once CP3 is back.
Stats to know
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): Suns in 6.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Suns in 6.
Kane Pitman (@KanePitman): Clippers in 7.
Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694): Suns in 6
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