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The Los Angeles Clippers welcome the Phoenix Suns to the City of Angels for Game Three in the Western Conference Playoffs after they split the first two games in the desert.
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The Clippers looked like they were going to pull a second-straight upset in the early parts of the game. They came out and played faster and with more energy than the Suns and had them up against a wall early. Phoenix was able to string together a mini-run just before halftime and tie the game up, which turned out to be huge.
Devin Booker got it going late into the third quarter and helped launch an offensive masterclass in the fourth. The Clippers were forced to abandon their usual drop coverage and play small ball, but without Paul George’s defensive versatility, they wound up overcommitting and leaving other Suns players open.
Tyronn Lue pivoted back to the drop coverage and tried stacking both Ivica Zubac and Mason Plumlee in the pick-and-roll, but neither could contain the hot shooting of Booker and company. LA then finished the game with another small-ball lineup and found more success, but the damage was done by that point.
Russell Westbrook, as great as he was offensively, also doomed his team’s chances of coming back despite being down just six with 3:13 remaining. He committed turnovers on consecutive possessions which led to two buckets for Phoenix, and the lead was suddenly back to 12 with 2:01 left.
Devin Booker scored 38 points and dropped nine assists on an ultra-efficient 14-22 shooting from the field and 4-7 from three-point land. Kevin Durant also had 25 points as every one of Phoenix’s starters scored at least 14 points.
Despite the dominating performance from the first team, the bench was once again a massive issue and only came up with 13 points on 5-11 shooting. Booker and Durant played 45 and 44 minutes respectively as the reserves’ playing time was cut even further. 37-year-old Chris Paul also played 38 minutes for the second-straight game as Cam Payne continues to miss time with a back injury.
Leonard had 31 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists and shot 11-20 from the field—however, the Clippers blitzed him frequently in the second half and forced the ball out of his hands, which led to worse looks for LA. Westbrook was fantastic (until his late errors) and finished with 28 points (9-16 FG), five rebounds, and five assists.
The bench players were not at their best but still combined for 30 points. Coach Lue will continue to ride them and throw different looks at the Suns’ defense while also keeping his starters fresh.
The Clippers are going home for Game Three, but they were only two games better at home than they were on the road. That’s tied for the second-smallest disparity of any playoff team in the Western Conference (the other is the Sacramento Kings, who were actually better on the road than at home).
Coach Lue has proven to be one of, if not have the sharpest mind in the NBA. He is going to come up with new ways to defend the Suns on their high screen (which was frequently coming beyond the three-point line) and to send bodies to close off the mid-range shot Phoenix loves to take. It will be harder without George, however, to hold up an entire game playing like that.
Phoenix is likely to continue to ride its stars out of necessity because they probably view the Clippers as their toughest matchup until the conference finals. The path to victory seems to be for Booker and Durant to combine for 60-70 points and for Deandre Ayton and Paul to add at least another 30, given how poor the bench has been.
The Clippers will win Game Three if they are successful at defending Phoenix’s actions designed to get them moving downhill with space in the mid-range. Modern NBA defense is geared towards running shooters off the three-point land and sticking an interior defender at the rim, but that isn’t going to work against a team that can nail 15-footers like they’re layups.
One possible solution is to hedge the screen and keep ball handlers in front of the defender. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Clippers force the ball into Paul’s hand, whether he is the primary ball handler or the screener since he is the least effective of the perimeter players at this stage in his career.
Any sort of bench contribution will help, but doing the same thing over and over again (playing underperforming reserves) and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. It’s going to be another long night for Booker and Durant, and they need to score a ton to have a prayer of winning.
To the Suns’ credit, they woke up as Game One progressed and went from looking gassed to being the aggressors in the second half. It remains to be seen how this aggressive strategy will hold up over the long run, but it’s their only win condition in the present.
This is going to be one of the tightest games on television this week. Normally Westbrook’s inefficiency and carelessness are a disaster in close games, but strangely, the game that he was objectively bad in was the one they don’t win without him, and the game that he was as efficient and productive as ever was the one they lost.
Leonard’s consistency and LA’s bench advantage are the key factors here. Stick with the Clippers on the spread for safety but don’t be surprised if they win.
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Grant is a sports and sports betting journalist who prides himself on delivering breaking news and insightful analyses of the industry. Grant graduated from Virginia Tech in 2021 and is feverishly pursuing his ambitions in the sports betting field.
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