After hanging out in the thick of the Western Conference standings all year long, the Phoenix Suns (45-37) and Los Angeles Clippers (44-38) draw each other in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. The Suns have homecourt as they’re the four seed with the Clippers are the five seed and finishing one game behind Phoenix.
Although there are many interesting playoff matchups, this one may have the most at stake considering how both teams have championship expectations. A first round exit for either the Suns or Clippers would make the season a failure. With no regular season matchups that feature either side at full strength, let’s see who has the advantage in several series-deciding categories.
Star power- Suns
Even with a healthy Paul George, the Suns arguably have more starpower than not just the Clippers, but every team in the West. Nevertheless, PG13 is still recovering from a sprained knee that he suffered back in late March. Given that fact, Kawhi Leonard is the lone star on the Clippers while the Suns are stacked to the brim with star power. Kevin Durant is a top five player in the game. Devin Booker is a certified walking bucket. Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton can also deliver star level impact in some games.
Role players- Clippers
Though the Clippers may lack the star power to contend with the Suns, they might just make up for it with their slew of quality role players. From the score-first guards Norman Powell and Bones Hyland to the floor spacing wings like Eric Gordon and Nicolas Batum, the Clippers are loaded with a well balanced rotation. LA is deep too and can go 10 or more deep if need be. Phoenix has a great top four and some underrated depth pieces, but they’re not on the same level as the Clippers here.
Sceptics of the Suns will point out the lack of pressure they put on the rim and subsequent low free throw rates as weak points in their offense. While this argument has merit, the likes of KD, Booker, and CP3 can mitigate this issue against a lot of teams with their absurd shot making from the perimeter and the mid-range. While the Suns aren’t invincible, I’d place their offense in another tier with the Clippers. Oftentimes the Clippers offense can still get stagnant and remain too reliant on standstill jumpers.
While neither the Suns or Clippers are top rebounding units, the Suns measure out as the superior unit statistically. The Suns are 11th in rebounds per game, fifth in OREB per game, and 10th in OREB%. On the other side of the coin, the Clippers are 16th, 19th, and 12th in those same categories, all behind where Phoenix ranks. Deandre Ayton is the key cog on the glass for the Suns and he doubles as the best rebounder in this series.
The Clippers and Suns are high profile outside shooting teams as both rank inside the top 10 in three point percentage. LA knocks down 38.1% of their shots from downtown, good for third best league-wide. Meanwhile Phoenix is not too far behind them, shooting the rock at a 37.4% clip from three point range. Additionally, the Clippers have rotational players connecting on 36% or higher from three while the Suns only have six such players.
Interior defense- Suns
At first glance, this may not seem right as the Clippers have more size than the Suns. However, Phoenix has the two best rim protectors in this series. Deandre Ayton isn’t the worlds best shot blocker but he is more than capable of providing impact down low. Additionally, the Slim Reaper himself KD is still an underrated defender and roamer who can use his long arms to deflect shots at the rim.
Perimeter defense- Clippers
Rim protection isn’t the Clippers strong suit but perimeter defense certainly is. LA has defenders to match up with guards trying to initiate the offense. They also have wing defenders to limit secondary drives. The Clippers switching is a valuable asset and their ability to go with three or four wings in a small ball lineup is designed to support their effort on this end. The Suns give effort on the ball but the Clippers have too much talent in this respect.
Call me crazy for not picking a former NBA Coach of the Year in Monty Williams but playoff time is Ty Lue time. Lue has a proven track record of making adjustments and pushing the right buttons for his team to succeed and overperform on the bright playoff stage. Williams is an offensive genius in his own right but was stumped in last year’s Western Conference Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Maybe that series still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth but I’ll take Lue’s playoff pedigree over what Monty has shown for now.
Team chemistry- Clippers
If the Suns hadn’t made the KD trade, I’d be comfortable in picking them in the team chemistry category. However, the Suns have only played in a small handful of games with their core four. At the same time, the Clippers have seen plenty of roster turnover since their 2021 WCF run due to a couple of busy trade deadlines. Ultimately, the core of the Clippers has seen more action in the late stages of the regular season which is why they will have better team chemistry in this series.
Total score: Clippers 5 | Suns 4
Series prediction: Suns over Clippers in seven games
Although the Clippers hold a one advantage lead over the Suns in the categories I layed out, I’m still picking Phoenix to win the series. This will be one of if not the closest and most unpredictable first round matchups so it could certainly go either way. For me, the deciding factor was Paul George’s injury status.
Maybe 2019 Kawhi Leonard could carry this load against a top heavy Suns team, but 2023 Kawhi won’t be able to. Despite their limited playing time together, the Suns will wear down the Clippers thanks superstar performances from Durant and Booker to close the series out.