Keys for the Clippers
Heading into the playoffs, the Clippers played a dangerous game by tanking to get the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. This move almost backfired in their face as the Mavs pushed them to the brink of elimination. Despite this though, the Clippers dismantled the number 1 overall seed Utah Jazz in the next round and seem poised to make a legitimate run at the NBA Finals. Despite the Kawhi injury, here are the keys to Los Angeles winning the 2021 West Finals.
“Replacing” Kawhi Leonard
It seems more and more likely that we will not be seeing Kawhi Leonard in this series. While nothing has been explicitly reported, the fear is that the injury is ACL related. While a sprain and a tear are two very different things with vastly different recovery times; it still seems likely that the Clippers will have to forge ahead without their superstar wing.
To finish the Jazz off, the Clippers got phenomenal performances from Terance Mann and Reggie Jackson. We can’t expect both of them to go for 20+ points every game but it’s reasonable to assume that both players will take on a larger responsibility within the offense. Nicolas Batum will also see an uptick in minutes and a greater responsibility on defense. Kawhi is an all-world talent and as such, is irreplaceable. However, the players mentioned above came through to close out the Jazz and the same effort will be required to beat the Suns.
“Playoff P” or “Pandemic P”
Paul George has been the butt of every joke since the Clippers flamed out in last year’s bubble. Deservedly so I might add. He was atrocious against Denver last year shooting 4 for 16 in game 7 and putting up a -20 plus/minus. However, this year’s Paul George has been on a mission to prove that last season was a fluke. George closed out the Jazz by averaging 29 ppg, 9.5 rpg and 4.8 apg over 6 games. He stepped in for Kawhi Leonard, took hold of the reins and led the Clippers past the Jazz.
All that being said though, if he regresses at all and the pressure gets to him against Phoenix; all that criticism will resurface. Paul George has a chance to boost his legacy in this series and earn his self-proclaimed nickname. He also has a chance to be a hero for a Clippers franchise that has never made the Finals. So the only question remaining is will we get “Playoff P” or “Pandemic P”?
Big or Small Lineups?
Tyronn Lue has done a fantastic job of adjusting his scheme to turn an opponent’s supposed strength into a weakness. For example, by going small against a supersized Dallas team, he was able to run the bigger and slower Mavs off the floor without giving up much in terms of rebounding or interior defense. Part of this is roster construction. In the playoffs, Lue has played Leonard, George, Morris and Batum more than 30 minutes per game. All four of those players are big enough to defense inside and rebound with the added benefit of being quick enough to defend the perimeter as well.
However against Phoenix, Lue may have to adjust yet again. Deandre Ayton has the potential to be the X-factor of this series (spoiler alert!) with his size and athleticism. Lue may be forced to play Zubac and Cousins just to keep Ayton off the glass and out of the paint. Zubac has played every game in these playoffs but he’s only averaging 13 minutes per game. Cousins isn’t the same player he was since injuries sapped his athleticism but he’s still a big body with plenty of experience guarding players like Ayton. Although, he’s only played in two games in these playoffs. Lue has a big decision to make as we head into game 1 and it could have a huge effect on how this series plays out.
Series X-Factor: Terance Mann
Aside from replacing Kawhi Leonard in the starting lineup, Mann plays a crucial role on this Clipper team with his ability to play both the guard and forward spots. I don’t expect him to recreate his performance from game 6 against Utah but I do expect him to be effective with his minutes. He’s got enough chops defensively to at least give Paul George some relief on Devin Booker and he’s big enough to help on the perimeter with Phoenix’s young wings. Offensively, if he keeps cutting and shooting like he did against Utah, he could find himself playing crunch-time minutes. The Clippers have used Reggie Jackson at the two guard but he’s undersized for that role. At 6’5, 215 lbs, Mann can play there effectively and efficiently.