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.