Empire of the Suns podcast co-hosts Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman discuss how injuries to the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and the Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley could change the outlook for the Phoenix Suns, who themselves could potentially be without Chris Paul to start the Western Conference Finals.
Kellan Olson: Kevin, we should start with the latest news at the top. The Clippers “fear” Kawhi Leonard has an ACL injury, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, while Jazz point guard Mike Conley (hamstring) missed his fifth straight game on Wednesday.
Leonard’s “out indefinitely” timeline doesn’t bode well for his future and it feels safe to say we should treat him as out until we hear otherwise.
The Clippers pulled off a huge upset in Game 5 on Wednesday, taking down the Jazz in Utah to go up 3-2 in the Western Conference Semifinals series.
Was that a best-case scenario for the Suns, who await the winner in the conference finals?
Kevin Zimmerman: I think so. I would be surprised if the Jazz don’t keep the series alive with a Friday night win to take it to a Game 7 over the weekend, thereby pushing the Suns’ Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals series to Tuesday instead of Sunday.
That two days is a critical amount of time if Paul can get cleared to re-join the team and then get a little sweat in after taking perhaps close to a week off. Not to mention that both the Clippers and Jazz are banged up.
Donovan Mitchell’s frustration about his poor play and lingering ankle injury came out a bit after Game 5.
If we assume he’s operating at 70% and that Leonard would miss the start of the Western Conference Finals, which team at this moment would you say presents a better matchup for the Suns considering the injury situations that have arisen over the last three days?
Olson: Without a doubt, it’s the Clippers.
The Suns and Jazz are two very similar teams when it comes down to how they match up personnel-wise and the way they play team basketball on both ends of the floor. That would make that series a war and a crapshoot at the same time.
Los Angeles’ star power diminishing to just Paul George is more than enough for the Suns’ defense to handle, and with the lack of ball-handler creation elsewhere on that roster, Phoenix would be able to bottle that offense up. And by default, that makes the Suns better offensively.
While there should be concern with the Clippers going small and playing five-out, Deandre Ayton’s play this postseason inspires more than enough confidence that he’d be able to hold up his end of the bargain in an increased role. And look, even if he struggled at times, the Suns have the wings to thrive going small anyway.
Let’s transition to the news of the week, Kevin, which is Chris Paul being out due to health and safety protocols.
Which team would they miss him more against?
Zimmerman: A lot of that has to do with Conley’s status for Utah. The Jazz point guard hasn’t played at all in the semifinals series due to a hamstring injury, and it’s hurt a team that aside from Mitchel, just doesn’t have a ton of guys that can create decently off the bounce.
The Jazz got some good news Friday, however, with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reporting the guard is “working toward a return to the lineup” for Game 6.
If Conley suffers a setback, I think Paul is more crucial against the Clippers. I realize this might be a warm take considering Utah is clearly the better team, but humor me for a second.
Los Angeles will throw bodies at Devin Booker, be it George or Patrick Beverley. Ty Lue’s squad can also do a lot of switching to blow up the mismatching that led the Suns to attack a weaker defender playing both the Lakers and Nuggets in the first two rounds.
The Clippers would force the Suns to do a lot more immediate weakside swinging of the ball off pick-and-roll actions, and having another playmaker who can attack against a scrambling defense in the mid-range and make good decisions would be even more crucial against Los Angeles, I think. It would just present a very different gameplan compared to what worked for Phoenix against Denver and the Los Angeles Lakers.
All that said, I think a Kawhi-less Clippers team is still a less dangerous team than Utah, even if Mitchell and Conley are dealing with injuries.
Of course, if and when Paul returns to the Suns will swing things.
Obviously, there are quite a few variables days before the Western Conference Finals could start.