For the first time since 2010, the Phoenix Suns returned to the NBA Western Conference Finals after sweeping the Denver Nuggets 4-0 in the second round. The team catalyst all year long, Chris Paul, led the way posting 21/5/11 during the four-game beat down of the Nuggets on 62/75/100 shooting splits (Only eight three-point attempts taken throughout series). Right beside him, one of the game’s youngest superstars, Devin Booker averaged 25/8/4 throughout the series vs the Denver Nuggets and exploded for a scorching 40 point triple double against the Clippers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
Booker has been labeled as an empty stat star since he was drafted out of Kentucky. Despite averaging at least 25 points a game for the fourth straight year critics wondered if he was good enough to be an alpha scoring option on a playoff-contending team (silly). The truth of the matter is that GM James Jones has done an outstanding job surrounding his franchise player with competent vets and young players to fill the voids that are required to maximize a team’s ceiling that’s led by a score-first superstar like Book.
But even prior to the acquisition of CP3, the Phoenix Suns team had already instituted their foundation of youth from the ground up that let them manifest their championship desires. We saw flashes of it in the Orlando bubble last year (8-0 W-L record). Anytime you bring in a floor general like Chris Paul that possesses the championship pedigree he’s carried his whole career you’re almost a guaranteed a chance at postseason contention. You can look at what he did with that Oklahoma City Thunder in year one post-Russell Westbrook/Paul George. Phoenix’s formula for success was already in the works and the point god only made the transition that much easier with his leadership.
What makes the backcourt of CP3 and DBook a luxury to have is that it allows you to have at least one All-Star ball handler/scorer on the floor at all times. More dangerous together than not, both CP3 and Booker are well capable of generating offense for themselves and others. Booker had averaged at least six assists each of the two seasons prior to CP3’s arrival back when he was dominating the basketball. We’ve seen other organizations decide to primarily have the offense ran through their star shooting guards like James Harden & Luka Doncic.
Principally, in today’s modern NBA, it’s a requisite to have multiple offensive threats that can create shots for others besides themselves if you want to contend. That’s what makes this Suns’ team that much more dangerous. This isn’t CP3’s first time co-starring in an NBA All-Star backcourt. He did it alongside Harden in Houston but that was in Mike D’Antoni’s iconic spread-em-out system and James Harden and Devin Booker have two distinct playstyles.
A Kobe Bryant disciple, Booker is not a ball-dominant guard despite the fact he’s well qualified to bring up the ball, generate instant offense, however, he’s not nearly as iso-centric as Harden. Booker loves to operate mostly in the mid-range area off of isolation and pick and roll sets. Even when Book is off-ball, running around pin-down screens like Rip Hamilton, a lot of his catches result at the top of the key just before the three-point line and on the block. A much better three-point shooter than the numbers show (career 35% 3-point shooter), Booker is one of the purest scorers and shooters in the NBA though he’s never relied on volume to be effective. His pace, footwork, and variety of scoring tactics are where he draws the Kobe Bryant playstyle comparisons as Stephen A Smith deemed earlier this week.
Book’s never been much of an above-the-rim player though he’s more athletic than he’s given credit for. He goes into his repertoire of scoring tricks when he’s driving into the paint with floaters and bunny hop shots jumpers from close range, utilizing the glass as well as anyone. Booker is also a menacing scoring threat from the post. His quick release and 6’6 frame against smaller opposing guards is pretty much a mismatch every time.
All of this scoring versatility Booker has, as well as how well he’s flourished alongside CP3, only makes you imagine how dominant CP3 and Kobe Bryant would have been for the Lakers had then NBA commissioner, the late David Stern not vetoed the blockbuster trade back in 2011. The scoring and playmaking ability of the backcourt in Phoenix has boasted the entire roster all season but everyone has played a vital role in Phoenix’s ascendance to the NBA’s elite.
Anytime you have an excess of 3-D guys to be the backbone behind your star volume scorers, it’s a recipe for success. In this case Suns’ Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder have been x-factors to the Suns’ breakout year. Kobe had similar supporting guys like Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest during those late 2010’s title runs. Their ability to slow down their opponent’s premier scorers, stretch the floor, and do the dirty work goes to measures that can’t be interpreted in the box score.
More so seen in the first-round series vs the Lakers though we’re unsure how healthy Lebron Jame’s ankle was going into it, that abundance of Suns’ wings thrown at Lebron held him to his lowest playoff FG% since 2015 (47.4%) and that was the difference-maker. You didn’t see the same downhill drives and rack attacks at the same rate in years past. Some of that may be the health of his ankle, the mileage on his body in year 18 (NBA all-time leader in postseason minutes played), plus the Suns’ game plan. Overall, they made Lebron feel uncomfortable all series.
De’Andre Ayton, who also missed 25 games last year due to violating the NBA’s drug policy, has grown into a dominant force in the paint for the Suns all playoffs. Ayton caught the game-winning buzzer-beater alley-oop to push the Suns’ Western Conference Finals series lead to two games to none against the Clips. Ayton went off for 24 points and 12 boards in Suns’ game two win missing just four of his 16 shot attempts. Ayton also nearly posted a 20-20 game in Game 4 going for 19 points and 22 boards on 8 for 14 from the field. Ayton was dared over and over to shoot those 12-15 foot midrange jumpers and ultimately made the Clips pay.
The efficiency is key cause Booker and CP3 have combined to shoot 24 of 84 from the floor the past two games. Some of that is the fact that Patrick Beverley has been tasked to primarily guard Booker who broke his nose in Game 2 and CP3’s dealt with COVID woes.
Though both the Anthony Davis and Jamal Murray injuries were depleting, the Suns pressured both floor generals Lebron and Nikola Jokic to carry the scoring load. Those two are at their best when they’re getting the whole team involved, initiating offense, and just playing the quarterback role for their team. Asking Lebron James to carry the scoring load, create scoring opportunities for others, and be the defensive backbone on the other side of the floor is a lot to ask of a superstar that turns 37 in December and that was the only way the Lakers would have advanced. They would have gone as long as Lebron could have taken them.
As for the Nuggets, who were also down Will Barton along with Jamal Murray going into the playoffs, Jokic was facing the same adversity and pressure Lebron was, being asked to do more than was capable of and you could see it wore on him physically. Not exactly known for imposing his athletic ability on opponents, Jokic played every game in the regular season and it was evident the last couple of games how fatigued he looked at times in that second-round series vs the Suns.
On the other side of the court, the resilient Los Angeles Clippers have been through absolute wars all postseason. They’ve come back from unlikely 0-2 holes to both the Dallas Mavericks in the first round and the Utah Jazz in the second. When current Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue led the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA championship with the help of Lebron James and Kyrie Irving back in 2016 it’s always felt like Lue never quite got the same respect as the other prominent head coaches in the association. On Richard Jefferson’s Road Trippin’ podcast Lebron recalls a verbal altercation with Lue where Lue very critical of James during halftime of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals and as well as advising Lue to put the ball in Kyrie Irving’s hands down the stretch ultimately leading to arguably the greatest shot in NBA history. “During the Finals before one of the most clutch shots in NBA history, where I’m telling T-Lue to go to Kyrie .. go to Kyrie because I knew the matchup he was going to get”. “Yeah, me and T-Lue get into it at halftime and almost come to blows”.
We all know that Ty Lue is one of the best head coaches at handling various superstar personalities and egos because he was surrounded by them during his playing career. Lue doesn’t let any of those things dictate his coaching style or get in the way of the main goal at hand of getting the most out of his players. Lue continues to show why he’s one of the best in-game managers in the NBA, his on-the-fly adjustments of matchups exposing the team’s opponents have been going unnoticed for years.
Lue has been the difference-maker in each of the previous two playoff series. Lue put Reggie Jackson in position to thrive all postseason. With the sidelined Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers needed someone who can provide instant offense besides Paul George. Jackson was in a similar position as he was during his first couple of years as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder alongside Durant and Westbrook. The former Boston College standout is averaging 21 points and four rebounds a night on 45% shooting from the floor.
All four of the Western Conference Finals games were winnable games for the Clippers, especially game two. The load has fallen onto the laps of a fellow 2-way star swing Paul George. After a 34/4/5 performance in the Game 1 loss in Phoenix, George had a great opportunity to put the Suns away late in the fourth quarter in Game 2. These were the final Clipper scoring possessions in the final 2:40 of Game 2; Paul George 3PM, Paul George AST to Zubac for two points, Kennard made FG, Paul George FT, Paul George FT, Paul George made FG, Paul George made FG. Nine total clutch points down the stretch until missing both free throws that would have put Clippers up three points.
The Suns went on to come back to take Game 2 taking a 2-0 lead into Staples Center. With an impressive 27/15/8 stat line in Game 3 to make the series 2-1, PG found himself in another crucial situation in Game 4. The Suns were up 81-78 with 6.2 seconds left in the game with PG at the charity stripe for a couple of free-throw attempts. George’s first attempt hit inside of the front rim, then the iron, and bobbled out. A devastating miss, George was only left to intentionally miss the second attempt.
The Suns ultimately took Game 4 taking a commanding 3-1 lead. Through the series’ first four games Paul George is putting up 27.5 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. Despite the stat stuffed sheet, PG’s shooting splits are an abysmal 36/28/70. Fatigue and the burden of having to be the go-to guy, primary playmaker, as well as be the best defender, something he hasn’t been asked to since his Pacer days.
Yesterday marked George’s 17th consecutive 20-point game to begin the playoffs. Only three players in the last 20 seasons can say they’ve done the same. (Dwayne Wade ’06, Kobe Bryant ’08, and Kevin Durant ’12 & ’18). George leads all players in playoff minutes played as well so the amount of energy required of him is the only way the Clippers have a shot at advancing. With their backs against the wall, the Clips will look to be the first team since the 2016 Golden State Warriors to come back from a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals.
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