Kawhi Leonard may have missed Wednesday's heavyweight tilt between the Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns, but his teammates stepped up to give fans an exciting 48 minutes of basketball. The Suns led by as many as 14 points, but the Clippers got to within a single point in the fourth quarter before Phoenix pulled away to win it, 109-101. By doing so, the Suns punched their ticket into the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
The victory pushed the Suns to 44-18 on the season while the Clippers, still awaiting Leonard's return, are now 43-21. The Clippers haven't been healthy for quite a while, and with time running out in the regular season, are in desperate need of reinforcements as they attempt to fall on the right side of the bracket. This game's massive seeding implications are among the three most important takeaways from tonight's battle.
1. The Suns are moving up, the Clippers are moving down
First thing's first: the Phoenix Suns are officially heading to the playoffs. Their 11-year drought, the second-longest in basketball behind the Sacramento Kings, is over as Phoenix's victory clinched a spot in the postseason. Of course, the Suns have much loftier ambitions than that. Right now, they're playing for home-court advantage. The Suns currently trail the No. 1 seeded Utah Jazz by only one game in the standings and the two play on Friday. If Phoenix wins, they capture the tiebreaker with around two weeks to play.
The Clippers, meanwhile, lost their best chance at catching Phoenix for No. 2. They now trail the Suns by two games, though they clinched the tiebreaker earlier in the season. Now, their focus is on holding their position rather than improving it. They currently lead the Denver Nuggets by only a single game in the standings, and they'll face off on Saturday with the tiebreaker on the line. It is fairly likely that the winner of that game will be the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.
That is perhaps the most important seed in the entire bracket this season because the injury-riddled Lakers are lingering as the likely No. 5 seed. Staying at No. 3 means avoiding them in the first two rounds. Falling to No. 4 means playing them right off the bat. The Lakers will be watching how this plays out very carefully. If the team they want to play is at No. 3, they could try to slip to No. 6. The Dallas Mavericks trail them by one in the loss column and have the tiebreaker, so the Lakers are hardly set in their own position.
The final days of the regular season are going to be a mad dash to avoid the Lakers. The Lakers will probably try to avoid the Clippers. Fortunately for the Suns, Wednesday's victory was their ticket out of that mess. They can fight for the top seed knowing that their worst-case scenario will be probably mean playing against the best play-in team in the first round.
2. Clutch Paul
Death, taxes, and Chris Paul in the clutch. They are life's great certainties. It was only two nights ago that Paul ended New York's nine-game winning streak with an absurd fourth-quarter shooting display. He was up to his old tricks again Wednesday. He scored only three points in the first half but went off for 25 to bury the Clippers in the second.
Paul is, unsurprisingly, among the NBA's best clutch scorers again this season with 3.6 points per clutch game. Phoenix has a 21-11 record in the clutch thanks to Paul, and that figure is actually somewhat disappointing based on his track record. The Thunder went 30-15 in the clutch last season, and Paul led them to the NBA's best clutch offensive rating. He did so in Houston as well in 2018.
Paul isn't going to win MVP. He doesn't post the gaudiest numbers. But Phoenix has a chance to win a championship strictly because Paul is there. For the first time since Steve Nash left, they have someone capable of matching LeBron James, Kevin Durant or any other superstar late in playoff games. Paul proved it again on Wednesday. His track record, at this point, is practically bulletproof.
3. The other Paul
Paul George had the opposite of Chris Paul's night. He scored 15 points in the first quarter, but only 10 the rest of the way. George's clutch foibles don't need to be relitigated, and he's obviously more dangerous when Leonard plays. But despite his late-game issues on Wednesday, it should be noted that George did score 25 on the night. After dropping 39 and 33 in his first two games against the Suns, George wound up averaging 32.3 per game against them on the season.
That success is somewhat surprising given Phoenix's personnel. The Suns have a number of viable wing defenders to throw at George. Even when Mikal Bridges is occupied with Leonard, Jae Crowder and Torrey Craig are no slouches. Perhaps Leonard's absence, and the extra attention it put on George, contributed to his struggles later in this game, but on balance, he has done well in this matchup. That's worth watching as these teams gear up for a possible second-round playoff matchup.