The Los Angeles Clippers know that despite having the services of elite playoff performer Kawhi Leonard, defeating the new-look Phoenix Suns in the first round of the 2023 NBA playoffs will be such a difficult task. Slowing down Devin Booker was already a near-impossible task to begin with, but with Kevin Durant around, the Suns now have two players who can get off a quality shot on every possession. And that's without mentioning the antics of Chris Paul, who has proven time and time again that he'll flail and protest his way to a victory.
Even then, this version of the Suns, as scary as they may seem at first glance, haven't particularly gone through adversity just yet. The Durant-led team hasn't faced too many full-strength teams, and regardless of how stacked with talent a team is, they will still need time to acclimate so they could bring out each other's strengths.
Thus, if there was ever a time for a shorthanded Clippers team to face the Suns, it's the first round, Paul George's injury-related absence notwithstanding. The Clippers will also enter the playoffs as an underdog for the first time since the 2019 postseason, so they will be playing with house money as they try to prove all the naysayers wrong.
With all that said, here are three bold predictions for the Clippers-Suns' series rematch from the 2021 playoffs, this time with Kawhi Leonard acting as LA's lone superstar with PG13 out.
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3. Kawhi Leonard averages 30+ points on 55%+ shooting from the field
At this point, betting against Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs is a foolish gambit. He's the rare player whose shooting efficiency improves in the playoffs instead of dropping off against the highest level of competition possible. And it's incredible how Leonard is able to pull this off, as his shot selection doesn't particularly change that much in the playoffs. He remains the same, stone-cold assassin from the perimeter, preferring to do his damage from the midrange.
Simply put, Leonard is a player whose game is built for the playoffs, someone who can terrorize even the best defenders in a one-on-one setting and someone who, when facing double teams, can make opponents pay especially when the Clippers' role players are on point from beyond the arc.
No Clippers fan will ever forget how Kawhi Leonard saved his team in the 2021 playoffs with an incredible series against the Dallas Mavericks. In a heated seven-game affair, The Klaw ended up averaging, *checks notes*, 32.1 points on 61.2 percent (!) shooting from the field, highlighted by a 45-point effort in Game 6 with their backs against the wall.
Of course, it's difficult to envision the Suns having as paper-soft of a defense as the Mavs, since they have a few bodies they can throw at Leonard in an effort to slow him down. But Leonard has overcome the best perimeter defenders in the playoffs before, and the Clippers will need him to be at his best to pull off an upset.
2. Robert Covington ends up playing 20+ minute role off bench, earns closing lineup duties
For the entire 2022-23 campaign, Clippers fans have wondered where in the world Robert Covington has been. A great team defender with an elite penchant for being a passing lane pest, Covington averaged his least minutes since his rookie campaign after finding himself in head coach Tyronn Lue's doghouse.
But with a series against three of the best midrange shot-creators of all time, the Clippers will have a ton of ground to cover on the perimeter. And Covington could very well become a necessary piece for them to stop the Suns' jumpshot-centric offense.
In fact, there is a picture making the rounds on social media where Covington is wearing the Clippers' black practice jersey, which members of their starting unit wear, so he may be in for a larger role off the bat.
This could end up being a smokescreen, as Lue is known for keeping his cards close to the vest, but Covington certainly has the skillset to help LA solve their Kevin Durant and Devin Booker problem.
1. Clippers in 6
The last time the Clippers were the underdogs in a series, they made life difficult for the dynastic Golden State Warriors, pushing them to six games despite not having a single All-Star on the roster.
When the Clippers went up against the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in the 2015 NBA playoffs, the majority of pundits expected the veteran Spurs crew (with reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard) to advance to the second round, but the underdog Clippers managed to reign supreme.
It's when the Clippers are favored to win the series where they seem to crap the bed (2015 second round and 2020 second round immediately come to mind). But this time, with only a few people outside the most loyal fans believing in their chances of upsetting the Suns, the Clippers could very well be set up to succeed.
Clippers in six.