With Chris Paul still in COVID-19 safety protocol, there were some concerns about Phoenix and their ability to beat the veteran-heavy Clippers, but Devin Booker suppressed those concerns in his first-ever Conference Finals game.
The first Conference Finals game of the 2021 NBA Playoffs have come and gone with the highest seed remaining, the #2 Phoenix Suns, proving doubters and analysts wrong by taking the 1-0 series lead over the LA Clippers, extending the Suns’ win streak to eight straight games.
Chris Paul, the undisputed leader of this Suns squad, was forced to miss game one due to the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocol but that didn’t matter for SG Devin Booker, who scored 40 points to go along with his 11 assists and 13 rebounds, marking his first triple-double ever.
Going into game one there were plenty of respected analysts saying that the Suns could not compete with the likes of Paul George (who averaged 26.1 pts/9.2 reb/5.3 ast in his first two series) and Rajon Rondo, both of whom are veterans who have been deep in the playoffs multiple times.
With that being said, the cornerstone of the Clippers’ squad, Kawhi Leonard, was not playing due to a leg/foot injury which has kept him sidelined since his Game Six matchup against Utah, which definitely plays a factor in the win-loss column (LA is 8-10 all-time without Leonard in the lineup).
Leonard is considered day-to-day and could even be back in the Clippers lineup before CP3 returns to the Suns’ lineup, certainly something worth keeping an eye on considering both players could drastically change the dynamic of this Western Conference Finals when healthy.
Booker’s triple-double, Deandre Ayton’s 71% field goal percentage, and the veteran presence that was brought by Jae Crowder (who went 13/6/2 in Game One) and Torrey Craig (who shot two-for-two from three-point range) made the Suns appear almost as comfortable as they typically look when they have CP3 on the court, although there were moments where the team seemed a little unstable like when they allowed a 16-2 run right before the last quarter.
The game was back-and-forth for the first three quarters which consisted of 18 lead changes and 12 ties, but both teams entered the fourth tied 93-93. After the final quarter began the Suns immediately went on a 12-2 run and were eventually ahead by ten points with eight minutes left, but the Clippers would rally back to within two points thanks to a series of threes by Rondo, Nicolas Batum, and Terance Mann.
But in the end, it never mattered thanks to the easy looks that every single Phoenix player was able to get due to their exceptional passing and every Suns’ ability to get inside the paint and score (PHX had 54 pts in the paint compared to LA’s 34).
Booker’s easy lay-up with 22 seconds left essentially put the game away and fired up the roaring Phoenix crowd who has not seen a Conference Finals game live since 2006 when they lost 2-4 against the Dallas Mavericks.
Now comes Game Two on Tuesday, June 22nd, and if the starting roster remains the same (i.e. no CP3 or Leonard) then the Suns should be able to go up 2-0 quite easily if they play with the same vigilance on defense and have a similar night offensively (55% FG%, 40.6 3P%).
Currently, the Suns are favored by 6.0 points and have a 58% win probability (according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index) heading into the game, which could move up or down depending on any breaking news regarding either teams’ missing superstar.
But even if Leonard is healthy enough to return and CP3 is not just remember that this Suns team went 8-0 in the bubble, last year against some rested, great teams–one of them being a buzzer-beater win over these same Clippers when they were healthier and stronger defensively–and that was all without the likes of Jae Crowder or CP3.
So Phoenix should be favored to win Game Two, and even games three or four possibly, due to their chemistry that has developed from playing every game together all season (i.e. not participating in load management like the Clippers) and because it’s obvious that Booker is channeling his inner Kobe Bryant lately which means he could go off for 40+ again at will.