(best-of-seven, all times PT)
Game 1: Sunday at Phoenix, 12:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 2: Tuesday at Phoenix, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Thursday at L.A., 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4: Saturday at L.A., 6 p.m. (ESPN)
*Game 5: June 28 at Phoenix, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
*Game 6: June 30 at L.A., 6 p.m. (ESPN)
*Game 7: July 2 at Phoenix, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Clippers won the regular-season series, 2-1
Jan. 1: Clippers 112, Suns 107, at Phoenix Suns Arena
Feb. 17: Clippers 113, Suns 103, at Staples Center
Feb. 19: Suns 109, Clippers 101, at Phoenix Suns Arena
TALE OF THE TAPE
Suns (regular-season rank) … category … Clippers (regular-season rank)
51-21 … Season Record … 47-25
115.3 (7th) … PPG … 114.0 (10th)
100.8 (1st) … Opp. PPG … 107.8 (4th)
49.0 (2nd) … FG Pct. … 48.2 (5th)
37.8 (7th) … 3-pt Pct. … 41.1 (1st)
83.4 (2nd) … FT Pct. … 83.9 (1st)
42.9 (23rd) … Rebounds … 44.2 (16th)
26.9 (3rd) … Assists … 24.4 (16th)
7.2 (19th) … Steals … 7.1 (20th)
4.3 (25th) … Blocked shots … 4.1 (29th)
12.5 (4th) … Turnovers … 13.2 (7th)
At the start of the second round, Paul George was being serenaded by the Utah faithful with “over-rated” chants. To end the series, he heard it from the Staples Center crowd too, but those fans had a different message: “M-V-P!” Alongside Kawhi Leonard and, for the past two games, without his co-star, George proved an elite, multi-dimensional faciliatory when the Clippers needed him most against the Jazz. In the Clippers’ four consecutive victories over the top seed, George averaged 31.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.5 steals. He shot 47.8% from the field and 44.1% from 3-point range. And the Clippers won the 164 minutes he played by 64 points. It’s worth noting he also played inspired basketball this regular season against the Suns, averaging 32.3 points on 60.7% shooting from deep in three outings. His backcourt mate Reggie Jackson has emerged as postseason hero, stepping up as a dependable volume scorer – especially in the two games without Leonard, when he averaged 24.5 points on 58.1% (18 of 31) shooting. In their four second-round wins, the Clippers won the 132 minutes Jackson played by 50 points. … Chris Paul, a pillar of the Clippers’ Lob City era, played himself into the NBA’s MVP conversation in his first season with the Suns. He finished fifth in voting after averaging 16.4 points, 8.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals and leading Phoenix to its first playoff berth in a decade. Despite suffering a right shoulder injury in the first round against the Lakers, the likely future Hall of Fame point guard dismantled Denver in a second-round sweep, averaging 25.5 points, 10.3 assists, five rebounds and 1.5 steals and shooting 61.8% from the field and 58.3% from 3-point range. But Paul’s availability to start the best-of-seven conference finals series is up in the air after he entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols Wednesday. The 36-year-old hadn’t been cleared as of Saturday, the team said. His backup is Cameron Payne, who averaged 15.7 points and 4.5 assists during a four-game stretch in the first round. At shooting guard, two-time All-Star Devin Booker is averaging 27.9 points per game on 48.7% shooting in his first playoffs. EDGE: CLIPPERS.
It’s unclear how much time Leonard will miss; the team is calling the All-NBA first teamer’s injury a sprained knee and multiple reports indicate it likely involves his ACL. According to Yahoo’s Chris Haynes, Leonard won’t travel with the Clippers to Phoenix to start the series. The Clippers can take some solace knowing that without him last week, they stunned the basketball world by closing out their second-round series with two convincing wins. Until he can return, they’ll rely on a combination of Marcus Morris Sr. (a 47.3% 3-point shooter in the regular season), Nicolas Batum (a team-best plus-9.8 through 13 games these playoffs), Terance Mann (whose 39-point eruption in Game 6 against Utah lifted the Clippers into the conference finals). Also, Ivica Zubac could see more than the 13.2 minutes per game he played vs. the Jazz if Coach Tyronn Lue elects to match him against Deandre Ayton – though the Clippers’ 7-footer will have his work cut out for him against the Suns’ athletic, 6-11 big man. … Ayton is on a tear this postseason, averaging 15.2 points, shooting 71.6% from the field and collecting 10.6 rebounds per contest. Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder provide defensive tenacity and toughness for the Suns. EDGE: SUNS.
With Batum and Jackson becoming fixtures in the starting lineup this postseason, the Clippers’ most important bench contributors – besides Mann – have been Patrick Beverley and Luke Kennard. After watching most of the opening round against Dallas from the sideline, Beverley’s disruptive defense on an ailing Donovan Mitchell helped turn the series in the Clippers’ direction. And L.A. counts on Kennard’s shot-making; he shot 55.0% – 11 for 20 – from 3-point range against Utah … During the regular season, Suns Coach Monty Williams played veterans Langston Galloway and Jevon Carter for backcourt depth, but that could change if Paul misses time against the Clippers. Williams has suggested he’ll turn to E’Twaun Moore to help with ball-handling. The combo guard played just 27 games and averaged just 4.9 points in his first season in Phoenix, but he has 21 games of playoff experience, including nine as a starter, and he has a career 2-to-1 assist ratio. EDGE: CLIPPERS.
In his first three postseasons as a head coach, Lue led Cleveland to three consecutive NBA Finals – including the Cavaliers’ first NBA championship. On Friday, he steered the Clippers closer to their first title they’ve been in their 51-season history, leading them to their first Western Conference Finals berth – and in the process becoming the first coach to bring a team back from 2-0 series deficits twice in the same postseason … Williams oversaw a sharp Suns turnaround this season, leading his team to the No. 2 seed with a 51-21 record a season after it finished 34-39. He received the National Basketball Coaches Association’s Coach of the Year Award and finished second in the NBA’s 2020-21 Coach of the Year voting. EDGE: DRAW.
Both teams are riding four-game winning streaks. Both could be without All-NBA performers to start the series in Leonard and Paul. Both are in pursuit of their franchise’s first NBA title … For their part, the fourth-seeded Clippers already made history by making it past the second round for the first time, though it wasn’t easy: Dallas took them to seven games and Utah had them on the ropes after winning the first two in Salt Lake City, but both times the Clippers were able, eventually, to solve their opponent. They closed out a victory over the Jazz on Friday night, about 39 hours before they’ll take the court against the Suns … Phoenix swept the Nuggets and won’t have played since June 13. The Suns have come closer to winning it all than the Clippers; this will be their 10th appearance in the Western Conference Finals in 54 years. Phoenix went 2-7 in their previous appearances – in which its previously held home-court advantage just once. EDGE: SUNS.
Without knowing when or whether Leonard and Paul will return, it’s hard to project what could happen between two teams that battled hard in the regular season. Will it come down to Booker vs. George? Or will it be the role players who make the difference – Jackson vs. Payne, anyone? What’s certain is that, even without their biggest stars, neither of these teams is wired to roll over. CLIPPERS IN SIX.