Here's a wild stat for you as we near the midpoint of the Western Conference finals: The Los Angeles Clippers are 0-6 in the first two games of their three playoff series thus far ... and 9-1 in all other postseason games they've played. They've beaten a generational superstar in Luka Doncic and they've beaten a great all-around team in the Utah Jazz. The Phoenix Suns represent a mix between the two, but before we dive into Game 4, specifically, it's worth taking a look at what actually happened in those first two comebacks and asking whether or not those circumstances are replicable. Three factors seem to be at the center of those first two Clipper comebacks:
- Ty Lue: His biggest adjustments have largely come after Game 2. In Game 3 against the Mavericks, he finally embraced small-ball and played Nic Batum as his primary center. He went away from small-ball early against Utah, but moved back to it for Game 3 and the Clippers won four straight. Game 3 against the Jazz was also when Lue went back to Terance Mann in earnest. The young guard played less than 10 minutes in the first two games of the Utah series, but saw 22 minutes of playing time in Game 3. He's averaged over 25 since. Sure enough, Game 3 against the bigger Suns saw Lue finally figure out his center rotation: Ivica Zubac plays the bulk of the game, and Batum shares center duties with Marcus Morris when Zubac sits. Zubac was plus-28 in Game 3, so the plan seemingly worked.
- Shooting luck: The Clippers shot 36.4 percent on wide-open 3-pointers in their first two games against Dallas and improved to 39.3 percent in the next five. They then improved from 28.1 percent in their first two games against Utah to a staggering 47.1 percent in their last four. Meanwhile, Dallas regressed from 57.7 percent in Games 1 and 2 to 34.4 percent in Games 3-7. Shooting luck is unpredictable. Even if the Clippers found better ways of generating clean looks, whether or not those looks actually go in, aside from which players are on the floor, is fairly random.
- Individual outlier performances: Paul George had his highest game score of the season in Game 5 against the Jazz. Mann had the highest game score of his career in Game 6. Kawhi Leonard had the third-highest game score of his illustrious postseason career in Game 6 of the Dallas series. It seems as though every time the Clippers are truly on the brink, someone saves them with a legendary performance. The Clippers have enough talent to expect high-end individual performances, but games like those are rare. The Clippers have already gotten three of them from three different players, one of whom is currently injured. They can't rely on getting another historic outing from a single player, though one can't be ruled out either.
So, with all of that in mind, are the Clippers are going to pull off a similar comeback against Phoenix? I'm dubious. They've really found something with Zubac, and that's going to make this a more competitive series. Given their excellent 3-point shooting all season, I suspect they will have a great night or two from behind the arc. I just don't think they're going to win three out of the next four that way, and unless George goes nuclear, I'd still heavily favor the Suns. Now, onto Saturday's top picks.
All lines via William Hill Sportsbook
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Phoenix Suns
Game 4: Phoenix leads series 2-1
Time: 9 p.m. ET | TV: ESPN | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
The Clippers didn't shoot particularly well in Game 3, but the Suns lost that game because Chris Paul and Devin Booker combined to shoot 10 of 40 from the field. Is that happening again? I doubt it. If you're picking the Clippers, you could talk yourself into to the two of them shooting in the 40 percent range. Patrick Beverley is defending Booker better than anyone ever has, and Paul might not be back in game shape yet. But they aren't shooting 25 percent again, and once their shots start falling, they become far more dangerous as passers. The pick: Suns -1
Vegas still hasn't caught on. Reggie Jackson has gone over his projected point total in all five games Kawhi has missed. They're moving this line too slowly, only one point at a time. Jackson has scored 20 or more points in four of the five games Leonard has missed, so asking him to do so again in Game 4 seems entirely likely. The pick: Jackson over 19.5 points (-110)
Ivica Zubac was plus-28 in Game 3 with 16 rebounds. He had a neutral point differential in the first two Clipper games, both losses. Lue has figured out just how essential he is in this series, and is going to continue playing him starter minutes. That should make double-digit rebounds a fairly easy milestone for him to reach. The pick: Zubac over 9.5 rebounds (-130)