The surging Phoenix Suns returned to the Staples Center for the first time in three weeks to play Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals against the LA Clippers looking to pick up from where they left off.
It was in this same arena that the Suns started their current eight game winning streak with a Game 4 win over the defending champion LA Lakers in the opening round of this postseason.
Another win at the historic arena, this time versus the Lakers’ co-tenant, the Clippers, would have given the Suns an imposing 3-0 lead in the series and put them just a win away from their first NBA Finals appearance since 1993.
After missing the first two games facing the Clippers due to the league’s COVID protocols, Chris Paul returned to action in Game 3 and all signs hinted at the possibility of a ninth consecutive Suns victory. Phoenix entered halftime of a slow-paced, grueling contest with a two-point lead, but momentum swung in favor of the Clippers in the third quarter.
LA was sparked by second-year forward Terance Mann who scored 10 of his 12 points in their furious third period rally. They turned a two-point deficit at the onset of the second half into an 11-point lead after the third quarter en route to taking a hard-fought 106-92 win that brings the best-of-seven to 2-1 for the Suns.
Paul George, who missed two decisive free throws in the waning moments of Game 2, led the Clippers with 27 points while Reggie Jackson had 23 of his own.
LA head coach Ty Lue used his third starting line-up in three games this series, replacing Marcus Morris with the more athletic Mann, and it allowed the Clippers to continuously swarm the Suns’ superstar backcourt.
The perimeter starting combination of Mann, George, Jackson, and Patrick Beverley, took turns pestering Paul and Devin Booker scored just 15 points apiece on sub-30% shooting.
Paul was visibly bothered by the length of the Clippers’ defenders, something he did not have to contend with in the previous round against the Denver Nuggets. Playing in his first game back after a 12-day layoff, he managed to hand out 12 assists which helped DeAndre Ayton continue his strong series with a team-leading 18 points and nine rebounds.
Meanwhile, Booker wore a mask to protect his nose which was broken after Beverley inadvertently head-butted him late in Game 2. The mask may have contributed to his second straight poor shooting evening, but the Suns will need him to regain his Game 1 form, where he torched the Clippers with a 40-point triple double, to advance.
Mikal Bridges chipped in with 13 points after finishing with just five in Game 2, while Cam Johnson had his third straight double digit scoring game, adding 12 off the bench.
The Suns were also hampered by the early injury to back-up point guard Cam Payne. In the absence of Paul, Payne filled in admirably as the Suns took a 2-0 lead in the first two games of the series, highlighted by a 29-point showing in Game 2.
The Clippers had difficulty keeping up with Payne’s pace on the court which gave the Suns’ offense a different dimension. He played just over four minutes in Game 3 prior to exiting with an ankle injury. Payne did not return and his availability for the rest of the series will play a major role in deciding which of these two teams gets to represent the Western Conference when the NBA Finals kicks off in about a week.
Phoenix’s roster has been intricately crafted to suit the unique talents of Paul and Booker. Bridges, Ayton, and Jae Crowder are ideal complementary pieces to these two All-Stars and the roster is filled with players who are content with starring in their roles. This has allowed the Suns to remain competitive even when one of Paul and Booker has an off-game, but the Clippers silenced both in Game 3. The two guards finished the game shooting a combined 10 of 40.
The Suns’ defense continues to be a source of strength and allows them to have a chance every night. Despite the loss, they held the Clippers eight points below their playoff scoring average. The key to this match-up lies in their offense.
Head coach Monty Williams will have to find a way to unshackle at least one of Paul and Booker in Game 4 if they are to avoid being the third team to lose a series after building a 2-0 lead against the Clippers this postseason. The absence of Kawhi Leonard has seemingly relieved this Clipper team, especially George, of any pressure that may have been hounding them and they are as dangerous as ever.
Game 4 will be crucial for the outcome of this series and will determine whether the Suns will have an opportunity to close out at home in Game 5.
The first career NBA Finals appearance for Paul and Booker is within reach, but they will first have to overcome this gritty Clippers team before taking a swing at the Larry O’Brien trophy.