The LA Clippers accomplished their goal of taking home-court advantage from the Phoenix Suns, splitting two games in the desert largely behind the singular dominance of Kawhi Leonard. As this first-round series shifts to Southern California, though, an injured Paul George will be joined on the sidelines by his fellow superstar wing.
The Clippers announced just hours before tipoff that Leonard will miss Thursday’s crucial Game 3 at Crypto.Com Arena with a right knee sprain.
The two-time Finals MVP suffered the injury in Sunday’s Game 1 before playing through discomfort 48 hours later, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Leonard’s knee sprain is reportedly unrelated to the ACL tear that cost him to miss all of of last season. He’s day-to-day for Game 4.
Already facing an uphill battle against basketball’s most star-laden team without George, Leonard’s absence for Game 3 leaves LA reeling. The Clippers went 3-9 during the regular season with both players unavailable, getting outscored 10.6 points per 100 possessions.
But anything can happen in the playoffs, where one random hot or cold shooting night could completely change the complexion of a series. Here are three ways the woefully undermanned Clippers can compete against the Suns in Game 3 with Leonard and George on the bench.
Dominate the offensive glass
Phoenix is a poor defensive rebounding team, a weakness LA exploited over the first two games of this series.
The Clippers grabbed 29.1% of their misses in a stunning opening win and had a 35.6% offensive rebounding rate in Game 2, absolutely owning the offensive glass. Ivica Zubac and Russell Westbrook have been especially effective in that capacity, their positional size and unyielding physicality simply proving too much for the Suns.
Winning the possession game is always pivotal for teams at a major talent disadvantage. If LA comes out crashing the offensive boards in Game 3, ultimately taking at least several more shots than the Suns, it’ll go a long way toward ensuring Ty Lue’s team remains competitive.
Launch threes with abandon
Imminently dangerous as Phoenix is offensively with Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul and DeAndre Ayton, Monty Williams’ team remains overly reliant on mid-range jumpers—where all four of its stars prefer to do the bulk of their damage.
The Suns attempted just 18 threes in Game 2, their lowest total of the season so far. They weren’t much more aggressive from deep in Game 1, getting up 23 triples, over five less than the Chicago Bulls’ league-worst average during the regular season.
LA’s only hope of keeping pace with Phoenix offensively in Game 3 is playing the numbers, vastly out-shooting the Suns from beyond the arc and hoping long balls fall.
Expect Eric Gordon, Norman Powell and Bones Hyland, among others, to be ultra-aggressive seeking threes on Thursday, with the expectation Durant, Booker and company will continue to live in the mid-range. Without Leonard and George drawing extra defenders and getting to the foul line in isolation and pick-and-roll, the Clippers just won’t have another reliable means of offense.
LA falling short of at least 40 three-point attempts in Game 3 would be setting itself up to fail.
Run, run, run
There’s a reason why the Clippers bucking down on defense won’t be mentioned as a possible antidote to Leonard’s absence.
He’s been by far their best defender in the playoffs so far, hounding Durant one-on-one and occasionally guarding Ayton to make it easier on LA to switch across multiple positions. George, of course, is another versatile, disruptive defender on the wing, making the Clippers a uniquely tough matchup for Phoenix—at least when they’re fully healthy.
The Suns put up a 131.5 offensive rating in Game 2, but even that gaudy number doesn’t completely capture just how efficient they were offensively. Phoenix’s half-court offensive rating in Tuesday’s series-evening win? A laughable 128.6, per Cleaning the Glass, easily the best any team has managed in the postseason thus far.
Corralling even more offensive rebounds and getting extra thirsty from three won’t be enough for the Clippers in Game 3 if the Suns maintain their offensive groove. Phoenix has always had a solid transition defense under Williams, but that doesn’t mean LA shouldn’t try to relentlessly to push the pace down Leonard and George.
The Clippers need to race the ball up the floor at every opportunity on Thursday, trying to create advantage situations and find clean looks from three before the Suns’ defense gets set. Powell and Hyland will be the biggest drivers of that additional pace, but anyone other than Zubac and Mason Plumlee should feel comfortable raking and taking after a defensive rebound, hoping to catch an aging, shallow Phoenix team flat-footed getting back on defense.
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