Clippers vs Suns WCF Preview: How Will Deandre Ayton Perform Against the Small Ball Clippers?
The Kawhi-less Clippers are coming off a stunning 25-point comeback against the top-seeded Utah Jazz to reach the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. Meanwhile, the Suns are coming off a sweep of the Denver Nuggets and a week of rest. Despite being the 2-seed, many picked the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to eliminate the Suns in the first round. However, the Suns cruised to the Conference Finals in pursuit of their first championship in franchise history.
With Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul out for Game 1 and likely beyond, this will be an interesting series. Kawhi Leonard had another dazzling season, making the All-NBA first-team and carrying his team past Luka Doncic and the Mavs in round one. Chris Paul, the 36-year-old ageless wonder, also had a brilliant year. CP3 made the All-NBA second-team in his 16th season and received a lot of MVP chatter. It will be interesting to see how the Suns adjust to life without CP3 and if they can use his absence as additional motivation like the Clippers have done without Kawhi.
Los Angeles Clippers
In the regular season, the Clippers had a 116.7 Offensive Rating (3rd in the NBA), 110.4 Defensive Rating (8th in the league), and a 6.1 NET Rating (2nd in the NBA), according to NBA Advanced Stats. This, of course, was mostly with superstar Kawhi Leonard on the floor. So far in these playoffs, the Clippers have the best offensive rating and are scoring 124.3 points per 100 possessions. They are shooting a whopping 40.5% from three and have a 58.6% eFG% based on an expected 54.8%, according to Cleaning the Glass. The Clippers have elite shooters who make tough shots.
During the regular season, the Suns had a 116.3 Offensive Rating (7th in the NBA), 110.4 Defensive Rating (6th in the NBA), and a 5.9 NET Rating (3rd in the NBA), according to NBA Advanced Stats. Over their last 6 games, the Suns are +13.1 points per 100 possessions with Chris Paul on the floor. Without Chris Paul, the Suns have also posted positive point differentials as long as backup point guard Cameron Payne has been on the floor. Cameron Payne has finally found a home in Phoenix and he has been stellar in his backup role. Without CP3, Payne should see an uptick in minutes. During the regular season, Payne averaged 16.8 points and 7.2 assists per 36 minutes on 44% shooting from three. However, the concerning statistic is that the Suns drop to -1.7 points per 100 possessions when Paul and Payne are both off the floor. Even without Kawhi and CP3, these teams have incredible depth and great coaching in what should be a fascinating series.
Keys to the Matchup
The Clippers need to find a way to slow down the pick-and-roll in this series. They struggled mightily to contain Luka Doncic and the pick-and-roll in the first round, and they will again see a heavy dose of the pick-and-roll in this series. Even with Chris Paul out, Devin Booker has improved significantly as a playmaker and the Booker/Ayton pick-and-roll is a deadly weapon for Phoenix. Deandre Ayton was tied for third in the league in screen assists this season.
The Clippers will likely look to neutralize this weapon with their small ball lineup. In the second half of Game 6 between the Clippers and Jazz, three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert was exposed with his inability to guard the perimeter. Gobert was forced onto Terance Mann, the unlikely hero for the Clippers who scored 39 points in the game, with 20 in the third quarter alone. While Gobert takes the brunt of the blame, the Jazz perimeter defense did him no favors. The lack of pressure on Clippers ball-handlers such as Reggie Jackson and Paul George allowed them to cakewalk into the paint, forcing Gobert to help, resulting in the inevitable open three. The Suns should make Ayton’s life easier as they have multiple versatile wing defenders such as Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Cam Johnson.
So far in the playoffs, Deandre Ayton has done a marvelous job on Anthony Davis and NBA-MVP Nikola Jokic, but this will be a completely different matchup for him. If the Clippers go small, Deandre Ayton should dominate on the offensive glass. If Ayton can feast on the Clippers small ball lineup, they may be forced to turn to Ivica Zubac. Turning to Zubac would put more size on Ayton, but Zubac struggled to defend the pick-and-roll against Dallas and his inability to shoot hurts the floor spacing of the Clippers.
Phoenix was top-10 in the NBA this year at limiting opponent field goal attempts at the rim, largely because of Ayton's presence, as well as their elite perimeter defense. However, the Clippers only ranked 28th in field goal attempts at the rim. The Clippers heavily rely on three pointers to generate offense, and Phoenix ranked 12th in allowing three point attempts, according to Team Rankings. The Clippers were one of the most efficient three point shooting teams of all time this past season. In addition, Clippers star Paul George averaged 32.3 points per game on 56% shooting in three games against the Suns during the regular season, including over 60% shooting from three. Without Kawhi Leonard though, the Suns should be able to zone in on stopping Paul George. The Clippers will once again need big contributions from the likes of Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris Sr.
I think this series will come down to Deandre Ayton and his ability to adjust to the small ball Clippers lineup. If he plays well and forces the Clippers to play Zubac for extended minutes, the Suns should pick the Clippers apart on both ends of the floor. However, if Ayton struggles like Gobert did and gets forced off the floor, the Suns will have serious issues keeping up with the Clippers high powered offense. I'm taking the Suns in 6, but the availability of Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul are huge question marks that will have a major impact on the outcome of this series.