The regular season is done, and the 4-seeded Phoenix Suns are heading for a rematch of the 2021 Western Conference Finals. After Sunday’s loss to close the regular season, there are no more questions about the Suns’ potential first-round opponent; to start off the 2023 NBA Playoffs, they’ll face the 5-seeded LA Clippers.

With Kevin Durant healthy and it feeling unlikely that Paul George will play, it’s a bit more of a lopsided matchup than the typical 4 vs. 5 series. But as the Suns learned last year, taking any opponent lightly can end a season with title aspirations in a heartbeat.

With Game 1 set to tip off on Sunday, it’s time to take a look at Phoenix’s first-round opponent to pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses. In no particular order, here are five keys to the Suns’ first-round showdown with the Clippers.

BONUS: Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard

Everyone knows that having the best player on the court can often swing a playoff series. And while Devin Booker shouldn’t be swept under the rug in this conversation, there’s a certain history to yet another playoff meeting between KD and the Klaw.

Even Clippers coach Tyronn Lue admitted back in February that the prospect of adding Kevin-Freaking-Durant to this Suns team is a scary one.

“I don’t want to make of it, I don’t want to think about it,” Lue joked. “That’s a tough trio, and it reminds you of the Klay [Thompson], Steph [Curry] and KD, even though [Chris Paul]’s a little older now. But just having that three-headed monster that, you take one guy out, two guys are still available and on the floor. So it’s a tough coverage, tough matchup.”

So yes, everyone is aware the tagline on this series will be “Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard.” But such a storyline deserves its own place in the spotlight, later this week. For now, rest assured that we’re not ignoring this clash between titans; we just want to give it the time and attention it deserves.

1. Suns capitalizing on live-ball turnovers

“Win the turnover battle” is a pretty standard goal that could apply to any playoff series, but it’s especially pertinent in this matchup. Both teams play at a nearly identical pace; the Clippers rank 21st in pace at 98.84, while the Suns are 22nd…at 98.83.

That kind of similarity puts additional pressure on generating extra points where you can, mostly by scoring off turnovers and getting out in transition. Phoenix has done a good job protecting the ball, ranking 11th in turnovers (13.5 per game). The Clippers, on the other hand, have been less successful on that front, ranking 18th (14.2 per game).

Their biggest problem is live-ball turnovers, which could help a Suns team that ranked dead last in fast break points this season.

The Clippers aren’t much of a fast break team either, ranking 21st in transition scoring, while the Suns are a top-10 transition defense. However, LA struggles on the flip side, ranking 21st in opponent fast break points and 23rd in opponent points off turnovers.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Cleaning The Glass ranks them 29th in transition defense off steals, allowing 149.5 points per 100 transition possessions that came off a steal. For reference, the league-average in that category is 139.8.

Their new starting point guard, Russell Westbrook, struggles with coughing it up in live-ball situations. According to Basketball-Reference, Westbrook committed 169 “bad pass” turnovers this year, second to only Trae Young and his astronomical mark of 235. Russ also committed 50 “lost ball” turnovers, meaning only Young and Anthony Edwards committed more turnovers in the entire league than Westbrook. And at least those guys played 400 and 700 more minutes, respectively!

The Suns don’t get out on the break often, but if they can force the Clippers into making more live-ball mistakes, they can capitalize against a subpar transition defense.

2. Expose Russell Westbrook and LA’s defense

Credit where credit is due: Westbrook has been legitimately helpful for the Clippers. In 21 games with his new LA team, Russ has put up 15.8 points, 7.6 assists and 4.9 rebounds a night, all while shooting 48.9 percent from the floor. He’s also made 35.6 percent of his 3s, which would be a career high if not for his time with the Lakers earlier this season.

Westbrook provides a downhill threat, playmaking at the point guard spot and an indomitable will to compete. He’s taken everyone by surprise over the last few months, except for one of his old assistant coaches in Monty Williams.

“He’s one of the guys that, I’ve never seen an MVP get criticized and marginalized the way he has,” Williams said. “I’ve always felt like a lot of it was kind of weird. I’m not in their locker rooms or the locker rooms he’s been in, but I know he’s one of the best players historically in the game.”

Williams is correct…but now it’s the Suns’ job to bring LA’s honeymoon phase crashing back down to earth and expose his biggest weakness.

One might be tempted to think that’s turnovers, but it’s Westbrook’s defense. So far, this issue hasn’t cropped up in LA. In fact, the Clippers have actually been 4.1 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Russ on the court.

But there’s a reason Clippers fans and media keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, and in a playoff series, where opposing coaches will target the “pigeon” over and over again, Westbrook could be rendered unplayable if the Suns repeatedly put him in actions.

Remember, this is a subpar Clippers defense that ranks 17th in defensive rating this season, including 21st since the trade deadline. They’re not great about protecting the basket, ranking 19th in opponent points in the paint per game. They’re below-average in protecting the 3-point line, ranking 19th in opponent 3-point percentage. And as Phoenix’s bench showed in the regular-season finale, they’re prone to inexplicable lapses, both in transition and in the half-court.

If the Suns can make Russ and that defense work with their paint-to-great playing style, they stand a good chance of replicating their October win over the Clippers, where getting in the lane helped them generate 42 3-point attempts. Scoring will also help them set their top-five half-court defense, which is something Williams mentions quite a lot. And for good reason….

3. Limit Clippers’ iso and 3-point attacks

The Clippers may be a bottom-third defense since the trade deadline, but they’ve also been the NBA’s seventh-best offense in that span. Kawhi Leonard regaining proper form in his first full season since the ACL tear has certainly helped, but LA also flourishes on that end by generating corner 3s and possessing a lot of guys who can go out and get a bucket.

To that end, being able to sit down and defend the Clippers’ plethora of guards and wings off the dribble will be important.

“We understand how they play,” Williams said after Sunday’s regular-season finale. “They look for matchups, and you have to be able to have a great shift defense against those matchups.”

It’s been clear all season, and the Suns saw it again on Sunday, but the Clippers like to set Leonard up with the ball and let him go to work in one-on-one mismatches. He doesn’t get to the rim much, so it’s no wonder he ranks in the 98th percentile at his position in his frequency of shots from the long midrange. He also ranks in the 80th percentile in accuracy on those shots, per Cleaning The Glass.

Paul George may miss the entire series, but if he does return, he’s in a similar category, placing in the 94th percentile in long midrange frequency and the 69th percentile in accuracy. That approach trickles down to the rest of the roster, as the Clippers rank third in long midrange frequency (12.9 percent), just behind the second-place Suns (13.8 percent).

However, unlike the Midrange Assassuns, the Clippers aren’t quite as lethal there. They’re 17th in long midrange accuracy (41.6 percent), while the Suns are seventh (43.8 percent). And since the Clippers don’t get to the rim often (21st in rim frequency) or move the ball much (24th in assists), Phoenix’s defense will come down to being able to stop those iso plays in a one-on-one environment.

“I think the more you score against them, you can get back and set your defense against that type of ploy,” Williams said. “But the other side is the ability to just guard two dribbles and not give up 3s. If we can guard in a one-on-one environment, which is what they do a lot of, and take away their 3s, we think we can be productive against any team.”

The 3-point battle is the other important part of that equation. LA ranks third in 3-point efficiency (38.1 percent), but only 14th in attempts. Where they really burn opponents is from the corners, ranking ninth in corner 3-point frequency and eighth in corner 3-point efficiency, per Cleaning The Glass.

The Suns are even better, ranking fifth and second in those respective categories. But if their defense can clamp down on iso sets and the corner 3s LA likes to generate, that high-powered offense will overpower a subpar Clipper defense.

4. Suns keeping Clippers off the FT line

This one’s pretty simple, and it’ll probably apply to every playoff matchup the Suns encounter this postseason. The Suns rank 27th in free-throw attempts, 27th in free-throw rate and 30th in opponent free-throw rate.

The Clippers, meanwhile, rank 11th in free-throw attempts, 11th in free-throw rate and sixth in opponent free-throw rate.

LA doesn’t live or die by getting to the foul line like some teams, but it’s imperative for the Suns to avoid getting bulldozed in the free-throw column. It’s one of the few advantages the Clippers possess on paper in this matchup, so keeping it even remotely close will allow the Suns’ superior talent to shine through on both ends.

5. Suns imposing will on the offensive glass

Remember the days when one of Phoenix’s biggest disadvantages was giving up a ton of offensive rebounds? Well, now they’ve replaced Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson with a 7-footer in Kevin Durant, and all season long, they’ve turned weakness into strength by crashing the offensive boards themselves.

The Suns rank fifth in offensive rebounds, snagging 11.8 per game. They’re also fifth in offensive rebounding percentage and eighth in second chance points.

The problem is, LA is a very good defensive rebounding team. They’re seventh in defensive rebounding percentage, seventh in opponent offensive rebounding percentage and 11th in opponent second chance points.

The Clippers are not the type of team that will crash the O-boards and make the Suns work in that way, but they will be the first test of Phoenix’s commitment to crashing the offensive glass. Can Deandre Ayton, Josh Okogie and Torrey Craig continue to generate second-chance opportunities for Phoenix like the mad men they are? Or will Ivica Zubac, Kawhi Leonard and a team of long-limbed wings hold down the fort?


Gerald Bourguet serves as PHNX's reporter, writing savant and podcast co-host for all things Phoenix Suns. He's been a basketball fan since the day he could say "Michael Jordan," graduated from the Walter Cronkite School at ASU in 2013 with a BA and MA in sports journalism and has been covering the NBA ever since. As a credentialed media member since 2015, Gerald dealt with his Suns-related depression through his writing...until the Bubble Suns changed everything. Now, the Artist Formerly Known as Zewio is just as excited to cover winning basketball as Suns fans are to enjoy watching it.