Not a single ESPN expert picked the LA Clippers to win this series. The line for Game 1, according to ESPN, sat at Phoenix -8. Paul George was out, Russell Westbrook shot 3-for-19, and Kevin Durant finished one rebound shy of a 27-point triple-double.
None of that mattered in Game 1. Behind a massive advantage in offensive rebounding, some key three-pointers in the fourth quarter, and a stunning burst of effort in the final minute, the Clippers stunned the Suns, 115-110.
Despite blowing a 16-point first half lead, this win was massive for LA. According to landofbasketball.com, NBA teams that take a 1-0 lead in a playoff series win that series 78% percent of the time. But aside from the math flipping firmly to the Clippers’ side, this win also showed a lot of positives that the Clippers could continue to use over the course of the series.
All of this is to say: here’s three things the Clippers did well, and three things they need to work on over the course of the series.
3. What they did do well: offensive rebounding
As mentioned earlier, the LA Clippers would not have won this game without their offensive rebounding. The final total stood 15-6 in favor of LA, with Westbrook and Ivica Zubac combining for nine by themselves. The key sequence: with 1:08 to go, the Clippers were clinging to a one point lead. Leonard put up a shot from 10 feet out, and missed. Westbrook crashed in for the rebound. 11 seconds later, Terrance Mann put up a three, and missed. Westbrook, again, crashed in for the rebound, tipping it out of bounds off Deandre Ayton. Despite missing three shots in 30 seconds, the Clippers wound up scoring to put themselves up three.
2: What they did do well: take advantage of winnable matchups
Kawhi Leonard is back for the LA Clippers. Leonard was easily the best player on the court, knocking down 13 of his 24 shots en route to a game high 38 points. A big reason for that was that the Suns guarded Leonard one-on-one for most of the second half, in which he had 25 of his points. They had to do that because double-teaming him failed in the first half, mostly thanks to Eric Gordon. Gordon dominated in the first 24 minutes, and was the beneficiary of many wide open shots when his defender left to double Leonard. If the Clippers can keep finding open shots against defensive strategies, their offense will lead them to victories. Credit should also go to Ivica Zubac, who dealt with tough post defense from Ayton and others but still was able to pile up 12 points and 15 rebounds.
1. What they did do well: stop the other Suns
While the production from those four Suns previously mentioned is all well and good, the LA Clippers proved that basketball games aren’t won with four players. Five players must be on the court at all times, and the Suns ended up using 11. Save Torrey Craig, who had 22 points and played very solid defense on Leonard, the rest of the Suns simply could not hang with the Clippers. Landry Shamet, a former Clipper himself, played 24 minutes, scored just four points, and had a plus-minus of -14. He was by far the best bench player Phoenix had. The dark side to the trade for Durant was that the Suns gave up a lot of depth. The Clippers, who have used their depth as a point of pride all year, had six players score nine or more points. The top three guys may sell tickets, but it’s the top eight guys that win games.
3.What they didn’t do well: holding on to the ball
The LA Clippers committed 14 turnovers in the ballgame, including five in the second quarter, helping the Suns get back into the game. The Suns were a top 10 defense in the league this year, but giving extra opportunities to a team with Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Chris Paul is not advisable. Luckily, Phoenix was only able to convert those turnovers into five points, but the Clippers can’t rely on that inefficiency continuing. Ensuring that the dangerous Suns’ offense has as few opportunities as possible is paramount over the rest of this series.
2. What they didn’t do well: stop the Suns’ stars
As mentioned earlier, Durant had an excellent game against the LA Clippers. Devin Booker also played quite well, using his talent in the midrange to pile up 26 points on just 19 shots. While Chris Paul struggled to shoot the ball, finishing with just seven points, he found other ways to contribute and finished with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Even Ayton, normally the forgotten fourth star on Phoenix, tallied 18 points and 8 rebounds. All told, the four combined for 78 points, 29 rebounds, and 25 assists, all three totals well over half the Suns’ total.
1. What they didn’t do well: avoiding a Clippers style slump
One of the bigger issues with the LA Clippers all year has been their ability to hold on to a lead. The same thing happened against the Suns. A 12 point lead at the end of the first frame ballooned to 16 at one point, but had been cut to just five by halftime. It was gone completely within six minutes of the second half beginning. LA simply cannot afford continuing to give away leads, especially against a team with as much firepower as the Suns. Though the Clippers were able to hold on to the win, most fans would be much happier if the margin remained in double digits throughout the game.