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The Phoenix Suns host the Los Angeles Clippers Sunday for Game One in the 4/5 matchup in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs.
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The Suns made the biggest move of the NBA season by trading Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Cam Johnson, and an assortment of picks to the Brooklyn Nets for 13x All-Star, two-time NBA Finals champion and two-time NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant. He was not immediately available and suffered another injury shortly after his arrival but is a whopping 8-0 in his brief Phoenix career.
Durant’s presence has also opened up the game for Devin Booker, who is now fighting with Anthony Davis and Jaylen Brown for the title of the league’s best second option. The main concern for the Suns, however, is their lack of bench depth, which is a byproduct of their having to move heaven and earth to land Durant. That bench rotation consists of Cam Payne, Bismack Biyombo, and a combination of Terrence Ross, Landry Shamet, and Damion Lee.
The Clippers also made a mid-season move of note by signing Russell Westbrook after the Los Angeles Lakers sent him to the Utah Jazz, who then bought him out of his contract. Westbrook is not the same MVP-caliber player he was in his hay day, but he has an important spot in the Clippers’ lineup, especially with Paul George likely to miss the first part of the series with an injury.
As talented and experienced as Westbrook is, however, he is wildly inefficient in the playoffs and also has a tendency to take matters personally. With him going against his former teammate, Durant, there is a decent likelihood that he views the series as a one-on-one showdown between the two and makes at least a few ill-advised decisions.
The Clippers have been a tough out in recent postseasons and have functioned better as the hunters rather than the hunted, which is a spot they are firmly in playing the Western Conference favorites. Missing George will be a huge blow, however, and will put nearly all of the onus on Leonard on both offense and defense.
LA’s path to victory will come from the bench. Its second unit will have to consistently outperform its opponents, even when one of Phoenix’s stars stays in the game to provide a scoring boost. If they cannot do that, they have basically no chance of outdueling the Suns’ starters and winning the series.
Durant had one of the most efficient seasons in league history this year and has been at his best in the desert. In eight games and while playing just 33 minutes per night, he averaged 26.0 points and 6.4 rebounds on 57/53.7/83.3 shooting splits. Booker is averaging 28.5 points in those eight games, although he has not scored more than 30 in their last five times sharing the court.
While Phoenix’s two main stars are above questioning, its next two, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton, are not. Paul has a long history of injury and underperforming in the postseason and had a career down year shooting and scoring the basketball. Ayton has solid numbers, but his motor is not always revved up and he has withdrawn himself from important games like Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals last year or Game Six of the NBA Finals the year before.
The Suns are eighth in net rating since the All-Star break and had one of the most efficient offenses in the league throughout the regular season. Their ability to lock in on defense in clutch moments will be tested, but they have no problem getting into and executing sets.
The Clippers were a defensive-minded team when Leonard and Geroge first made their way to town but are now just as equally focused on the offensive end. Part of that comes from the addition of Westbrook, who has injected more pace into their game.
Despite going 44-38 in the regular season, LA ranked 17th in both offensive and defensive ratings. Injuries have played a part in that, but they have struggled to find anything they can consistently go to when their backs are up against the wall.
Leonard needs to score a lot and Westbrook needs to be efficient if the Clippers want to steal Game One on the road. They will also need contributions from players like Terrance Mann, Bones Hyland, and Norman Powell to keep up with the firepower on the other side of the court.
Game One could tell a lot about the rest of the series. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue is savvy and has already won a championship and will be tough to beat. LA has also proven to be a bugaboo for several teams in the past couple of playoffs and has virtually no pressure to win this series.
If the Clippers win or keep it close, the rest of the series changes. For now, the best bet is on the Suns to win and to cover the spread, mostly because of the recklessness expected from Westbrook.
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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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