Intriguing storylines abound as Suns, Clippers meet for Game 1

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Durant was acquired to help the Phoenix Suns get over the hump as they seek their first NBA title.

That quest will begin Sunday night in Phoenix when the fourth-seeded Suns and fifth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers open their best-of-seven Western Conference first-round series.

The Suns lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 NBA Finals and followed up with an NBA-best 64-18 regular season record. But Phoenix was unceremoniously eliminated by the Dallas Mavericks in last season’s conference semifinals, being steamrolled in the final two games by an average of 30 points.

Phoenix struggled badly this season when Devin Booker was out with a groin injury and the organization saw a solution: acquiring Durant from the Brooklyn Nets. They obtained the four-time scoring champion in a package that included standout young forwards Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson and five first-round draft choices.

Due to injuries, Durant has played in just eight games for the Suns — he averaged 26 points and Phoenix won all eight — but the presence of the 13-time All-Star forward gives the Suns hope they can make a championship run. Phoenix is 0-3 all-time in the NBA Finals.

“Chemistry matters, being on the same page with your team matters,” Durant told reporters. “In a perfect world, I would have loved to play more than eight games with this team. But I’ve just got to rest on me playing 1,000 games in the NBA. I’ll figure it out.”

With Durant, Booker and star point guard Chris Paul in the same lineup, another playoff flop would rank as a big disappointment.

The Clippers lost to the Suns in the Western Conference finals two seasons ago without star forward Kawhi Leonard, who tore the ACL in his right knee in the previous series against the Utah Jazz.

Leonard will be playing in his first playoff game in 22 months since sustaining the injury, and the two-time NBA Finals MVP played solid basketball over the second half of this season.

“The guy is a winner,” Clippers forward Nicolas Batum said of Leonard. “In this league, people talk about, ‘Oh, Playoff Kawhi this or Playoff Kawhi that.’ He has that reputation when in big games, he’s going to step up, like two years ago before his injuries.”

Los Angeles, which split four regular-season meetings with the Suns, will begin the series without Paul George, who is recovering from a March 21 knee injury.

As for Leonard, he said he knows the Suns are different with Durant on the roster he views it as an enjoyable challenge.

“I mean, he’s a great player,” Leonard said of Durant. “These are the fun parts of it. Just going out there, getting to compete against a guy like him that’s been doing it year after year. Yeah, everybody is going to have to take the challenge, not just me. It is a team sport.”

Los Angeles added veteran point guard Russell Westbrook late in the season, which provides a tasty side dish to the series.

Westbrook and Durant were teammates for eight seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder and there were reports that their relationship had frayed before Durant departed as a free agent in the summer of 2016.

“It’ll be normal for me. I think people still think there’s some beef or something,” Westbrook told reporters. “There’s no beef. I got nothing but respect for him and things he’s done with his career. Happy to see him back from injury.”

Durant also played nice when asked about his former running mate and said he expects to see vintage Westbrook.

“I think Russ is competitive against any player he plays against,” Durant said. “I don’t think it was just specific to me. I think a lot of the fans and the people that were watching, it was high intensity for them. It was entertaining for them.

“So for us players, it’s just another game and regularly scheduled programming and Russ is that way. I played with him for so long and watched him for so long and he was that way against everybody so I don’t expect it to be different.”

–Field Level Media

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