Three things to watch series preview: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Phoenix Suns

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It’s not the Western Conference Finals anyone expected, but it’s an interesting one nonetheless.

Chris Paul leads his new team — the Phoenix Suns — against his former team that he could never lift to this point, the Los Angeles Clippers. Of course, those Clippers look nothing like the Lob City version he left; they overhauled the roster a couple of years back. Phoenix built slowly through the draft and developing players, then brought in CP3 (and Jae Crowder) to tie the whole thing together.

Here are the three things to watch, three keys to Western Conference Finals.

When does Chris Paul return? Will Kawhi Leonard play?

Of course, any discussion of a 2021 playoff series starts with “who is left standing?” In this case, the best player on both teams is out, and the series may be decided based on who returns when.

Chris Paul will miss Game 1 and remain out in the league’s health and safety protocols after apparently testing positive for the coronavirus (despite reportedly being vaccinated). Paul must have two negative coronavirus tests 24 hours apart, plus pass a cardiac stress test to return to the court. Whether he can meet those standards by Game 2 on Tuesday is up in the air, as is his return date to the team. However, he is expected back this series.

With Paul, the Suns’ offense is 13.5 points per 100 possessions better — the ball moves, mismatches are targeted, there are more 3-pointers and less isolation basketball.

Can the Clippers steal a game or two in Phoenix to open the series with Paul out? It could decide the series in the end.

Kawhi Leonard is also out for Game 1, but it is a much longer shot the Clippers’ star can return this series. He did not travel to Phoenix with the team, and with that it is unlikely he plays in Game 2. Leonard is officially out with a sprained knee, but this is reportedly an ACL injury of some degree, which means the team will be especially cautious, and it seems a long shot we see him this series.

The Clippers will need another Playoff P performance from Paul George this series, but more than that they will need their role players — particularly Reggie Jackson and Terance Mann — to step up with big performances. It will be difficult for the Clippers to keep up with the high-powered Suns’ offense.

How well can Deandre Ayton play in space?

In the Lakers and Nuggets, the Suns faced teams that played conventional centers heavy minutes (not that Nikola Jokic is conventional in the classic sense, but he prefers to operate around the basket). That gave the Suns a place to put Deandre Ayton and keep him near the paint as a rim protector.

The small-ball Los Angeles Clippers — with Marcus Morris or Nicolas Batum at center — will make Ayton play in space in a way he has not had to these playoffs. The Clippers did it last series to Rudy Gobert with some success, although ultimately the Jazz decided to keep Gobert in more and dare guys like Terance Mann and Patrick Beverley to beat them from 3, and… we saw how that ended. Ayton has the athleticism to bother guys and the perimeter and contest shots at the arc, but how well he does it this series will go a long way in determining how well the Suns defend this series.

The Suns will try at points to punish the Clippers by staying big and scoring inside. Both Dallas and Utah tried to do that and failed — the Clippers will trade twos for threes all game long. They like the math on that.

Will Devin Booker have a huge series exploiting Clippers switching?

For two rounds, the Suns have faced teams that work not to switch and run a more traditional drop-back coverage with their big men — and that worked for Phoenix. It gave Paul and Booker room to work in the midrange, where they are comfortable.

The Clippers aren’t going to give up those spaces the same way. What they will do is switch most picks, it’s the advantage of their small lineup and how the Clippers play best. It also means the Suns can more easily dictate matchups, and have Devin Booker target specific defenders and try to isolate them — Donovan Mitchell had great success doing that a couple of games against the Clippers (until his tweaked ankle slowed him half-a-step). When he returns, Chris Paul should be able to target defenders as well and have big games.

The Suns’ offense overwhelmed both the Blazers and Nuggets, neither could get stops or keep up by putting up big enough offensive numbers. Without Leonard, the Clippers are going to need more huge games from their role players again, more big Jackson or Mann games. It may be too much to ask for an entire series.

Bradley Beal says there were no teams in free agency where he could have contended

Washington Wizards v Charlotte Hornets
Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images
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Bradley Beal got his bag this summer — a $215 million max contract that includes a no-trade clause.

That signing was expected, with the teams that could have made bold moves to land him getting the impression he was not going anywhere. Which makes Beal’s explanation of his decision on the “No Chill with Gilbert Arenas Podcast” interesting (hat tip TalkBasket).

“There were no teams in the market, free agency-wise. I’m just being frank. There was nowhere else for me to go where I can be like, ‘Oh, I can go win.’ It was teams that strategically wasn’t what I wanted. So realistically, I wouldn’t say my hand was forced, but this was my best decision and best option on the table at the time.”

That’s not how it works. Technically he is correct, the teams with cap space this past summer — the ones that could sign him outright, such as the Spurs — were not going to contend for anything with or without Beal.

But teams create cap space all the time to get players they want, via trades/waiving players or other moves (for example a sign-and-trade). If Beal and his agent had put the word out that he was leaving Washington and wanted to go to a contender, teams from Miami to Los Angeles would have been poised to do whatever it would have taken to land him. There are countless examples of this around the league over the years, but to stick with the Miami theme, remember the Heat had to dump the salaries of Hassan Whiteside (they got back Moe Harkless and flipped him) and Josh Richardson to create the space for a sign-and-trade to get Jimmy Butler (which hard capped the Heat for a season). Teams will do what it takes to land superstars, Beal had options if he wanted to leave.

He didn’t want to go anywhere. Beal has said before that he wants to win on his own terms in our nation’s capital and has backed that up with his actions. He talked up the Wizards on the same Gilbert Arenas podcast.

“Not everybody gives you a voice in the organization. I have a voice here. I never had a chance to fully play a year with [Kristaps Porzingis]. That enticed me. He’s probably the best big I’ve played with. I like [Kyle Kuzma’s] ability to be able to spread his wings a little bit more, develop into the player that we think he can be. I like the young core that we were developing. Rui [Hachimura] is really good, had an awesome summer. Deni’s [Avdija] just gonna continue to get better. And then Corey’s [Kispert] a knockdown shooter, who is a pro’s pro. We still need to get better. I’m not sitting here saying, ‘We’re gonna hold up the Larry. We’re going to beat Milwaukee tomorrow.’ No. But to have the pieces we have, we have enough to know that we can compete on a nightly basis with no BS.”

That’s an optimistic view of the Wizards, who are 11-12 and 19th in the league in both offense and defense. The Wizards can be good but their margin for error night-to-night is minimal — they have to play their best game every night to have a chance. It’s a lot to ask.

Beal got what he wanted and nobody should ever question him for making the most money he could (Washington could always offer more and more guaranteed years than any other team). If he does want to leave someday, with his no-trade clause Beal has complete control over where he would land. It’s all a good deal. Just don’t say there weren’t other options available last summer.

Floyd Mayweather says he’s trying to buy NBA team, has offered $2 billion

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“Money” Floyd Mayweather lives up to his nickname — he was money in the ring and earned a lot of it as the greatest boxer of a generation.

Now the legend is willing to spend it to own an NBA team.

Mayweather said at a recent public event he was working to buy an NBA team and has made a $2 billion offer for one.

“I’ve been working on buying a NBA team outright. One of my other business partners, Brent Johnson, he’s here. So we’ve been working on the NBA team for a while now. It’s kinda, it’s rough…

“It could be the Vegas franchise. It could be the Seattle franchise or I could be buying a franchise that’s already up and running. So the first offer, we offered them a little over $2 billion for majority ownership. Do I have it? Absolutely, I have it, but it didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen overnight. It’s a lot when you have so many different businesses all around the world. It’s a lot.”

The only NBA team publicly known to be for sale is the Phoenix Suns and the sale price for that will be well above $2 billion (some estimates suggest double that number). Portland is not currently for sale but is expected to be available in the coming years, and other franchises may pop up on the market as well, but the price for any of those may be above $2 billion. As for potential expansion teams (which are likely headed to Seattle and Las Vegas), those are years away according to league sources, with the vote to approve them a few years out at least, followed by a couple of years of ramp-up. Also, the entry price to get into those is going to be well above $2 billion.

Mayweather says he has the money. He said a year ago his net worth was above $1.2 billion, but there is no formal tracking for these things, it could be higher or lower. Either way, with the price of NBA franchises today, he likely needs to bring in other investors as $2 billion will be on the low end of a sale price.

How the controversies of Mayweather’s past — including domestic violence and homophobic comments — play out in his ownership bid is another unknown. We know the NBA vets its owners and considers such things.

It may be a long shot, but Mayweather wants to buy an NBA team, which could be very entertaining for fans.

Watch Rudy Gobert get ejected for tripping Thunder’s Williams

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Already without Karl-Anthony Towns, the Timberwolves were without their second twin tower for most of Saturday night after Rudy Gobert got ejected for kicking and tripping the Thunder’s Kenrich Williams.

Early in the second quarter, Williams was driving to the rim and Gobert was there to contest it, and with the contact Williams went to the ground, then Gobert tripped over him and fell. As Williams started to get back up and try to get down the court, Gobert kicked Williams’ legs out from under him, tripping Williams. A brief scuffle followed.

The referees reviewed the play (it didn’t take long) and ultimately Gobert was given a flagrant 2 and ejected, while Williams got a technical. The refs got that one right.

The game was chippy the whole way through, but going against a smaller Timberwolves front line the Thunder picked up a 135-128 win behind 33 from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Watch Simons puts up career-best 45, carry Portland past Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) —  Anfernee Simons scored a career-high 45 points and blocked a potential 3-pointer with 4.6 seconds left to lead the Portland Trail Blazers to a 116-111 win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday night.

“I wanted to be aggressive and set the tone for my teammates,” Simons said. “Early on, let them know that we are in this game and I’m going to do whatever it takes for us to win it.”

The Jazz led 111-110 after Kelly Olynyk‘s twisting jumper and then had a chance to tie it at 114, but Simons swiped the ball from Jordan Clarkson as he rose for a 3-point attempt from the right angle.

“I just tried to catch him before he went up. … Kind of a risky play, but I’m glad I got it,” Simons said with a chuckle.

The Trail Blazers had lost seven of their last eight games before winning this thriller as Damian Lillard missed his seventh game with a lower right leg injury.

Portland’s Jerami Grant scored 13 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter as the Jazz swarmed Simons.

Jusuf Nurkic had 15 points and 14 rebounds and Trendon Watford finished with a career-high 14 rebounds, too.

The Jazz held Simons to just one field goal attempt in the fourth quarter, but he hit two free throws with 29.2 seconds to play, giving Portland a 112-111 lead. Grant added four free throws in the final 6.4 seconds for the final margin.

“Ant got it going early and we just kind of rode him, rode him, rode him. And then obviously Jerami was going,” Portland coach Chauncey Billups said.

Clarkson had 24 points, and Lauri Markkanen added 21 for the Jazz, but committed two turnovers in the final 35.7 seconds. Collin Sexton scored 19 points and Jarred Vanderbilt had a season-high 16 for Utah.

Portland led 107-101 on Grant’s 3-pointer with 4:12 to play, but Sexton scored five quick points in 10-3 run that was highlighted by Markkanen’s block of Simon’s drive in the final minute.

Simons scored 23 points in the first quarter – a season high for Simons, as well as any Blazers player in any quarter. Simons had 22 in the third quarter against Denver on Oct. 24.

By halftime, Simons had 33 points and the Blazers led 69-60.

“You have to come out in the very beginning and try to set the tone. Doesn’t matter that it’s the second night of a back-to-back. They came out with an aggressiveness and a physicality that we didn’t (have),” Utah coach Will Hardy said.

Simons became the third Trail Blazer in the last decade to score 45 points, joining Lillard and CJ McCollum. He wanted more.

“In the back of my mind, I wanted 50. But there’s going to be plenty of opportunities for that. It’s all right, because we got the win,” Simons said.