LOS ANGELES — Based on the appropriate fear Kevin Durant and Devin Booker can instill in opponents, the Phoenix Suns were a popular pick to come out of the wide-open Western Conference.
Yet for about 40 minutes of Saturday’s Game 4 — and pretty much the same thing two nights earlier in Game 3, and through much of this series— it is hard to see why people picked them. The depth isn’t there, and their defense and decision-making are inconsistent. That has allowed a gritty but shorthanded Clippers team to push them.
Then for stretches everything clicks and you can see why the Suns are feared — especially when Chris Paul is doing this in the clutch.
CHRIS PAUL 🔥 pic.twitter.com/E6E60fpQty
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) April 22, 2023
Their spurts of elite play were enough against a Clippers team again without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George (both out with sprained knees). Los Angeles just lacks the high-end gear the Suns can slip into.
The result Saturday was a 112-100 Suns win that puts them up 3-1 in a series that heads back to Phoenix Tuesday for what likely is the final game of the Clippers’ season.
Los Angeles had its moments, like a run at the start of the second half to take the lead, but their margin for error is very small and they couldn’t sustain it.
“We start off with third quarter really good, high intensity, but like I said their star players, they did they’re supposed to do, they made shots and they created a lot of shots for teammates as well,” Tyronn Lue said.
The Clippers were scrappy, the effort was there and Russell Westbrook led the way, finishing with 37 points as he relentlessly attacked the rim. The Clippers signing Westbrook was largely panned when it happened, but he has had the last word and certainly has shown his value in this series.
“Russ has been resilient his whole life…” Kevin Durant said after the game. “When he retires, people are really going to tell the truth about how they feel about his game. Right now the fun thing to do is to make a joke out of Russ, but the way he been playing since he got with the Clippers show who he really is.”
As well as Westbrook has played, the ceiling for this Clippers team is not high enough without Leonard and George.
“I’m disappointed Kawhi is injured again, more so than the matchup,” Durant said after Game 4, sounding like a competitor wishing to be tested. “It’s always fun playing against an all-time great. I don’t know Kawhi that well, but he seemed like he loves the game, loves to play, to hoop at this stage, especially around the playoffs.”
The Clippers need their stars against a Suns team where Durant can drop 31 on 9-of-17 shooting, and Devin Booker can add 30, as they did Saturday. The two of them have been consistently impressive through four games of the first round.
However, the question we had about Phoenix going into the playoffs — is there enough around those stars to come out of the West? — remains. They look like they have enough when CP3 takes over in the fourth quarter, but less so when he struggles like he did in Game 3.
“I think the mental fortitude that it takes to come back from the game he had the other day, and all three of those guys are trying to figure out, ‘you go, I go,’ that kind of thing,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “I thought all 3 of them were in ‘go’ mode today.”
The Suns force-fed Deandre Ayton to get him going early, but as always when he settles for a short hook the defense wins — he started the game 2-of-6. Things opened up when he started attacking and dunking the passes coming his way. Ayton finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds.
In the comfort of their own arena on Tuesday night, the Suns will likely close out the series and send the Clippers fishing. Then Los Angles moves on to an offseason with big questions: Bring back Westbrook? Extend Leonard and/or George? Re-sign Eric Gordon?
While the Suns can figure out how to play closer to their peak more consistently, because they will need to against the Nuggets next round.