Paul George hailed the toughness of the Los Angeles Clippers as they celebrated their first ever win in the Western Conference Finals after overcoming the Phoenix Suns 106-92 in Game 3.

Making their first foray into the Conference Finals, the Clippers slumped to a 2-0 deficit against the second-seeded Suns heading into Thursday's clash in Los Angeles.

With Kawhi Leonard still sidelined by a knee injury, George took centre stage as he recorded a 27-point and 15-rebound double-double – which included a stunning half-court buzzer-beater in the third period.

"This team is tough," George told ESPN. "We do whatever it takes. We trust one another. We've got each other's backs, and we just play hard.

"If you're going to beat us, it's just got to be one of those nights if you beat us. I think we've just got great resilience.

"Ty Lue just does a great job making adjustments, counters. We come out and we play hard.

"We put so much into this season, we've invested so much in each other, and we're going to live with the results.

"We'll be ready for Game 4."

Entering the contest at Staples Center following back-to-back games on the road, George had scored at least 20 points in all 15 games this postseason.

The latest performance saw George eclipse LeBron James' run of 15 consecutive games (in 2016) with 20-plus points in the playoffs – Kevin Durant is the only other active player to achieve the feat in the postseason (20 straight in 2012 and 21 in a row in 2018).

The Clippers – who are the first team all-time to be down 2-0 three times in a single postseason – outscored the visiting Suns 34-21 in the third quarter to move clear.

Reggie Jackson added 23 points for the Clippers, while Ivica Zubac (15 points and 16 rebounds) finished with a double-double of his own.

George and Zubac became the first set of team-mates to each tally 15-plus points and 15-plus rebounds in a playoff showdown since James (28 points and 15 rebounds) and Kevin Love (15 points and 21 rebounds) in 2017.

The starting team, which featured George, Jackson, Zubac, Patrick Beverley and Terance Mann, was Lue's fifth change of line-up across the previous eight games, with the coach reaping the rewards of earning his players' trust.

"It means a lot just for those guys to trust me, to understand that whatever I'm doing is the best for the team, not for me," said Lue.

"I just want to win. Making adjustments, sometimes it's tough, because adjustments mean some guys can't play, some guys play more, and you've got to be able to accept that."

Paul George dominated as the Los Angeles Clippers celebrated their first ever win in the Western Conference Finals after overcoming the Phoenix Suns 106-92 in Game 3.

Featuring in the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, the Clippers found themselves in a 2-0 hole against the second-seeded Suns heading into Thursday's clash in Los Angeles.

Even in the ongoing absence of superstar Kawhi Leonard (knee), George picked up the slack with a 27-point and 15-rebound double-double – which included a stunning half-court buzzer-beater in the third period – to lift the Clippers and help reduce the series deficit to 2-1.

Entering the contest at Staples Center following back-to-back games on the road, George had scored at least 20 points in all 15 games this postseason.

The latest performance saw George eclipse LeBron James' run of 15 consecutive games (in 2016) with 20-plus points in the playoffs – Kevin Durant is the only other active player to achieve the feat in the postseason (20 straight in 2012 and 21 in a row in 2018).

The Clippers – who are the first team all-time to be down 2-0 three times in a single postseason – outscored the visiting Suns 34-21 in the third quarter to move clear.

Reggie Jackson added 23 points for the Clippers, while Ivica Zubac (15 points and 16 rebounds) finished with a double-double of his own.

George and Zubac became the first set of team-mates to each tally 15-plus points and 15-plus rebounds in a playoff showdown since James (28 points and 15 rebounds) and Kevin Love (15 points and 21 rebounds) in 2017.

Suns veteran Chris Paul returned from the league's health and safety protocol and posted 15 points and 12 assists.

Paul became the 13th player in NBA history with 1,000 playoff assists in the losing effort.

It was a tough outing for star team-mate Devin Booker, who was just five-for-21 shooting as he finished with 15 points in a team-high 40 minutes.

 

Hawks at Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks will look to bounce back against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Friday. Trae Young and the Hawks claimed the opener in Milwaukee.

Chris Paul has cleared the NBA's health and safety protocols and is available to lead the Phoenix Suns on the road to former team the Los Angeles Clippers.

As the Suns waited to learn the identity of their Western Conference Finals opponents, a COVID-19 complication saw veteran point guard Paul sidelined.

The Clippers rallied past the Utah Jazz but quickly fell 2-0 down to Phoenix even with Paul out of the lineup.

Against the Jazz, the Clippers became the first team in playoff history to recover from 2-0 behind in two series in the same postseason campaign, having also recovered against the Dallas Mavericks.

But a third straight such success seems highly unlikely as Kawhi Leonard remains out with a knee issue, and Paul's return only adds to their woes.

The 36-year-old spent six seasons in LA and is widely considered among the Clippers' greatest ever players.

In the regular season, Paul has the most assists in Clippers history (4,023), ranks sixth for points (7,674) and eighth for minutes (13,885).

 

With 15.7 points, 8.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game in the playoffs, Paul boosts the Suns, although Cam Payne has filled in admirably in his absence.

Payne, who had one Phoenix start across the regular season and postseason prior to this series, was outstanding in Game 2.

He set career highs in points (29), field goals made (12) and field-goal attempts (24).

Payne's 29 points were the most ever in the playoffs by a Suns player who averaged fewer than 10 points per game during the regular season (8.4).

Even with Paul back, Payne likely has a role to play as Phoenix pursue a 10th straight victory. Ten other teams have won nine or more in a row in the playoffs and six went on to claim the title.

While his overall numbers were far from terrible, Paul George's performance in the 2019-20 playoffs was not what he or the Los Angeles Clippers envisioned when they paired him with Kawhi Leonard.

This postseason has provided an ample opportunity for atonement and George has mostly answered the call to push the Clippers into uncharted territory.

There are parts of the previous playoff campaign that clearly George would rather forget, namely his outings in Games 2, 3 and 4 against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. After scoring 27 points on 10-of-22 shooting in a series-opening victory, George averaged just 11.3 points on 10-of-47 shooting (21.3 percent) from the field, including 4 of 25 from 3-point range, in the next three games as Dallas knotted the series at two games apiece.

In the process, George made some unwanted history as he became the first player in NBA history to shoot under 25 percent from the floor in three consecutive playoff games since Bob Cousy in 1960 (minimum of 10 attempts in each game).

The former Fresno State product bounced back by scoring 35 points on 12-of-18 shooting in a Game 5 win against Dallas, but that is easily forgotten because the Clippers squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets in the semi-finals. George averaged 23.7 points on 46.5 percent shooting and 5.7 rebounds in the first six games of that series, yet that was overshadowed by his dismal 10-point, 4-of-16 shooting display and five turnovers in a Game 7 loss.

This postseason did not get off to a great start for the Clippers, who lost the first two games at home to the Mavericks before George, Leonard and company rebounded to win the next two games in Dallas.

That series came down to Game 7 in Los Angeles and George had 22 points and 10 assists in a 126-111 victory. There were not eye-popping numbers in that first-round series for George, but he scored at least 20 points in each game, a trend he has continued in every postseason contest in 2020-21.

 

George's streak of 15 consecutive games with at least 20 points is the longest in the league this season, and only Kevin Durant (21 straight in 2018) has a longer such run since 2017-18.

George really elevated his play in the second-round win over the top-seeded Utah Jazz, averaging 29 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists in six games. After Los Angeles again found itself in an 0-2 hole, George delivered 31.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists while connecting on 15 of 34 from long range in the Clippers' run of four straight wins.

He may have had the best playoff game of his career in a pivotal Game 5 win on the road with Leonard sidelined due to a knee injury, tallying 37 points, 16 boards and five assists. It was the first-ever 35-15-5 postseason game by a Clipper and George joined Durant as the only two players this postseason to have at least 35 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a game.

George also became just the fourth player in franchise history with three straight 30-point playoff games, along with Bob McAdoo (9), Leonard (5) and Elton Brand (4). George's seven 30-point postseason games since joining the Clippers are tied with Blake Griffin for third most in franchise history, trailing McAdoo (14) and Leonard (12).

The Clippers advanced to the franchise's first-ever Western Conference Finals by overcoming a 25-point deficit in Game 6, the largest comeback by any team to clinch a series in the last 25 seasons. Teams were 2-265 in the 2020-21 regular season when trailing by 25 or more. With that comeback, Los Angeles became the first team to erase an 0-2 deficit twice in one postseason.

That's a hole the Clippers will have to climb out again after a wild 104-103 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 2 on Tuesday. George shook off a slow start to score 10 fourth-quarter points and finished with 26, but he missed two free throws with eight seconds left and the Suns capitalised, Deandre Ayton's final-second alley-oop dunk securing a stunning win. It was the franchise-record ninth straight victory in the playoffs for Phoenix, a team which is finding ways to win even without floor leader Chris Paul.

It was an extremely disheartening loss for the Clippers, who overcame terrific games from Cameron Payne and Ayton to have a golden opportunity to steal a road win despite trailing most of the night.

George has done his part to keep the Clippers afloat in Leonard's absence, averaging 30 points in the first two games of this series. However, he is 20 for 49 from the field, did not make a 3-pointer in Game 2 until 2:41 remaining and those two missed free throws ended up proving to be extremely costly, especially coming from a career 85 per cent shooter from the line.

Fatigue certainly played a role for George, who has played at least 40 minutes three times in the past four games, including a 45-plus minute stint in Game 6 against the Jazz. Still, those misses could end up haunting George and the Clippers unless he and his teammates can render them meaningless going forward.

It would be foolish to think Los Angeles is not capable of still winning this series after it survived this scenario twice already. Still, overcoming the Suns will be a tall task since Leonard was still healthy when they lost the first two games to both Dallas and Utah.

While it is unclear if Leonard will return, Paul is expected to return from the league's health and safety protocols soon, perhaps as early as Game 3.

The Phoenix Suns have listed Chris Paul as "probable" for Game 3 of their Western Conference Finals series against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday, while Kawhi Leonard has been ruled out.

Paul has missed the opening two games of the Conference Finals series, which the second-seeded Suns claimed in Arizona, having been placed in the NBA's health and safety protocols.

Suns star Paul, 36, entered the protocols last Wednesday and is understood to be asymptomatic, having previously tested positive for coronavirus.

Paul has averaged 15.7 points, 8.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game this postseason.

Meanwhile, the Clippers confirmed star forward Kawhi Leonard will not play in Game 3 due to a sprained right knee sustained on June 14.

Leonard will miss his fifth consecutive game because of the injury.

In the Western Conference semi-finals, the Clippers won both Game 5 and 6 against top seeds the Utah Jazz without Leonard after suffering the injury late in Game 4.

Leonard has averaged 30.4 points, 4.4 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game in this season's NBA playoffs.

Los Angeles Clippers coach Tyronn Lue urged his team to "take care of business" by capitalising on home-court advantage as they seek to overturn a 2-0 deficit to the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals.

Deandre Ayton's dunk with less than one second to play gave the Suns a stunning 104-103 victory on Tuesday, leaving the Clippers to play catch-up.

Ayton caught a lobbed inbounds pass from Jae Crowder over the rim and slammed it home to seal the triumph, with Paul George failing to get off a buzzer-beating shot as the Clippers endured an agonising loss.

However, Lue refused to be downbeat as he was left to lament fine margins, with the Clippers coach now looking to put things right back in LA on Thursday.

"We fought well, we played well," said Lue.

"We had a chance to win the game. They won a tip-in and now we've got to go home and take care of business.

"They won two games on their home floor. We understand that. We've been in this position before, even though we hate it.

"Like I said, our guys fought and competed, but they made a big play at the end."

The initial reaction to Deandre Ayton's remarkable last-second dunk that gave the Phoenix Suns a 104-103 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday was disbelief, even from the man who made the shot. 

But Devin Booker knew Jae Crowder's inbounds lob to Booker that led to the game-winning basket with 0.7 seconds left was legal. 

He had seen Phoenix execute a similar play against the Memphis Grizzlies with 0.6 seconds remaining in a regular-season game in December 2017. 

"I think it's something that a lot of people don't know," Booker said. "Even talking to [the Clippers' Rajon] Rondo at half court after the game, he was like, 'It don't count,' and I was like, 'I've seen this movie before. It counts.'

"It's an incredible play, incredible execution on all ends, but Jae Crowder, that's a tough pass."

For his part in the drama, Ayton said he was just following instructions.

"I just trust my team-mates and my coaches," said the 22-year-old. "I just listened to what they told me to do and Jae made a great pass and I just finished. 

"I'm glad it counted. I didn't even know it counted. I wanted to hold in my celebration but my team-mates told me it counted and we just wanted to finish the game off strong." 

The Suns needed to defend one final attempt by the Clippers, and did so when Paul George could not get off a shot after a long inbounds pass. 

Now Phoenix will take a 2-0 series lead to Los Angeles for Game 3 on Thursday. 

"Hats off to the Clippers, they're a tough team, but once we stay together and we do what we have to do, we're a real strong unit, and that's what we did today," Ayton said. 

Deandre Ayton's dunk with less than one second to play gave the Phoenix Suns a stunning 104-103 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers and a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals. 

Ayton was the Suns' most reliable player throughout a back-and-forth affair and came up huge in the end, soaring to catch an inbounds pass from Jae Crowder over the rim and slam it home for the final margin. 

After the last in a series of lengthy video reviews in the final two minutes, the officials put 0.7 seconds on the clock for the Clippers, but Paul George could not get off a shot before the buzzer expired. 

With the Suns missing team leader Chris Paul due to COVID-19 protocols and their star Devin Booker having a difficult night, it was Ayton who came up huge Tuesday. 

The big man scored 12 points in the first quarter on the way to a 24-point night on 12-of-15 shooting in addition to grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds. 

On a night that saw Booker make only five of 16 shots from the field and turn the ball over seven times, Paul's replacement Cam Payne was a huge factor for Phoenix. 

Payne, whose previous career playoff scoring high was 19 points, scored 29 in 37 minutes on a memorable night in Phoenix. 

The Clippers were also missing a star as Kawhi Leonard sat out a fourth consecutive game with a knee injury, and George could not lift Los Angeles to victory by himself. 

The veteran led the Clippers with 26 points but made just 10 of 23 shots and missed two critical free throws in the closing seconds to give the Suns a chance to win it. 

The series shifts to Los Angeles on Thursday with the Clippers looking to bounce back at home. 

The Los Angeles Clippers will again be without superstar Kawhi Leonard for Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals due to a sprained right knee.

Leonard sat out the series-opening loss to the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, having suffered a knee injury in Game 4 of the Western Conference semi-finals.

Clippers forward Leonard will now miss his fourth consecutive game – Tuesday's NBA playoff clash with the Suns in Phoenix, head coach Tyronn Lue confirmed.

"He just stays engaged," Lue said on Monday. "He likes to know the adjustments we're going to make. He likes to know the game plan so when he watches the game, he can understand what we're doing good and doing bad, and let the coaches know, let the players know.

"He's very engaged. Even though he's back home rehabbing, he's still locked in and tuned in."

On keeping Leonard involved while sidelined, Lue added: "Just being able to hold guys accountable, talking to guys, talking to the players, what we need to do better on what he sees. If he knows the game plan, then he can definitely do that.

"So he's talked to the guys every day, as well, not just the coaching staff. He's very engaged and that's what you need from your players. He's locked in and still in tune."

In this season's playoffs, two-time NBA champion Leonard has been averaging 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists for the fourth-seeded Clippers.

The matchups are set for the NBA's Conference Finals – and few would have predicted these four teams would still be in the running at the start of the year.

In the East, the Brooklyn Nets' superstars fell to the Milwaukee Bucks while the Atlanta Hawks stunned the Philadelphia 76ers.

Western Conference leaders the Utah Jazz became the latest team to give up a lead to the Los Angeles Clippers.

However, the Clippers on Sunday lost Game 1 of their series with the Phoenix Suns, who had been resting since sweeping the Denver Nuggets.

So, which big names were key to deciding these unpredictable battles? Stats Perform takes a look in the latest edition of NBA Heat Check...
 

RUNNING HOT...

Paul George

Clippers superstar George understandably took a lot of criticism for his playoff performances last season, when he shot 39.8 per cent from the field and scored 10 points or fewer as many times as he reached 30.

But just as Kawhi Leonard went down against the Jazz with a knee injury, for which he has no return date, George found his scoring touch again.

Across four straight wins over Utah – three were last week – George contributed 31, 31, 37 and 28 points. His 37, along with 16 rebounds, came on the road in Game 5, putting the Clippers up for the first time in the series while Leonard sat out.

Even as a surely tired LA team lost to Phoenix on Sunday, George kept them in contention with 34 points to end the week averaging 32.5 per outing, as well as 9.5 rebounds (up from 23.3 and 6.7 respectively in the regular season).

Khris Middleton

Middleton is another impressive regular season performer who has been scrutinised for his postseason displays – and far more recently than last season.

Across the first five games of the Nets series, the wildly inconsistent Bucks forward shot 38.1 per cent from the field. He had 35 points and 15 rebounds in Game 3 but had gone six-for-23 in Game 1, making none of his five three-point attempts.

Yet Middleton's 38 points won Game 6, as he and Giannis Antetokounmpo joined Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal as the only team-mates in NBA history to each have 30 points and 10 rebounds in the same game twice in the same playoff campaign.

With a key role again in the series decider, Middleton became the first player to record at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals in consecutive postseason games since steals were first tracked in 1973-74.

Devin Booker

Booker played just once last week but put in a performance that cannot go unmentioned. Without veteran Chris Paul to help him, the sixth-year guard weighed in with a 40-point triple-double against the Clippers (also 13 rebounds and 11 assists).

Only Luka Doncic and Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson have achieved the feat at a younger age in the playoffs than the 24-year-old, while Steve Nash – another Hall of Famer – was the previous Suns player to score a postseason triple of any kind back in 2005.

Kevin Durant

Another player whose contributions must be highlighted, even with his team now out of the playoffs, is Durant. With 43.0 points per game last week, he showed the greatest improvement in the league from his regular season performances – up 16.1 on 26.9.

His 12.3 rebounds per game put the two-time Finals MVP second in improvement in that regard, too, but it was not quite enough.

A toe on the three-point line meant Durant's late leveller in Game 7 against the Bucks was not a game-winner, before the Nets lost in overtime despite his 48 points – one short of a heroic Game 5 tally and two shy of his career postseason best.
 

GOING COLD...

James Harden

That Durant was asked to do so much was due to injuries to both the other members of Brooklyn's 'Big Three'. Kyrie Irving did not play after Game 4 against the Bucks due to an ankle sprain, while Harden returned in Game 5 after missing the previous three.

To anyone watching, though, it was clear Harden was not healthy.

One of the league's great scorers, he made one of 10 field goals in his first game back, with five points in 45 minutes. Harden had never previously scored as few as five in half an hour of play or more.

His form did improve slightly with returns of 16 and 22 points, but Milwaukee won both, with Harden shooting 29.4 per cent from the field as he proved more of a hindrance than a help to Durant with their season on the line.

Ben Simmons

When Harden moved to Brooklyn, Philadelphia was seen as the potential alternative destination, although that would likely have meant the 76ers reluctantly giving up Simmons. After the defeat to Atlanta, Simmons may now leave regardless.

An outstanding defender, the guard's offense has long been a concern and so it proved again as he averaged 7.5 points last week, significantly down on his modest regular season (14.3).

Simmons made single figures in three straight games, twice shooting only four times from the field despite being on the floor for 38 and 35 minutes respectively.

His eight-point effort on Wednesday included going four-of-14 when shooting from the foul line.

Rudy Gobert

This is the first time since 1994 that both top seeds have failed to make the Conference Finals. The Jazz, just like the Sixers, needed more from their second star.

Gobert is the Defensive Player of the Year but looked a liability as the Clippers went small in Game 6, when his plus/minus was a dismal -24.

The Frenchman's output was down in all three defeats last week as he averaged 9.3 rebounds per game, having put up 13.5 in the regular season.

The Philadelphia 76ers' crashed out of the NBA playoffs amid a chorus of boos after the top seeds were sensationally upstaged by the Atlanta Hawks in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

Back on home court for the series decider, the 76ers were tipped to close out the matchup at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday, but the fifth-seeded Hawks had other ideas following a stunning 103-96 victory.

Despite Trae Young's off night (21 points on just five-for-23 shooting), the Hawks still managed to conquer Joel Embiid and the 76ers thanks to unheralded guard Kevin Huerter.

Huerter had a team-high 27 points, seven rebounds and three assists as the Hawks returned to the Conference Finals for the first time since 2015, setting up a showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks.

It was a topsy-turvy battle in Philadelphia, where the 76ers trailed 76-71 at the start of the fourth quarter before rallying to lead by as many as four points in the final period.

However, the Hawks refused to surrender and pounced on the sloppy 76ers, who finished with 17 turnovers en route to bowing out of the postseason.

Double-doubles from MVP runner-up Embiid (31 points and 11 rebounds) and Tobias Harris (24 points and 14 rebounds) were not enough for the 76ers, with Ben Simmons (five points, 13 assists and eight rebounds) the subject of boos in his home arena after attempting just four shots throughout.

With Atlanta's victory, it is the first time since 1994 both number one seeds in the playoffs failed to make the Conference Finals after the Utah Jazz were ousted by the Los Angeles Clippers, according to Stats Perform.

Earlier in the day, the Phoenix Suns were 120-114 winners over the Clippers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

Devin Booker recorded his first career triple-double, posting 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists for the second-seeded Suns in the absence of Chris Paul (COVID-19 health and safety protocols).

Booker – in the midst of his maiden NBA playoffs campaign – became the first Suns player to register a triple-double in the postseason since Hall of Famer Steve Nash in 2005.

The 24-year-old also became the third youngest player in NBA history to record a 40-point triple-double in the playoffs – only Luka Doncic and Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson have achieved the feat at a younger age.

The Clippers – featuring in the Conference Finals for the first time in their history – were without star Kawhi Leonard for a third consecutive game due to a knee injury.

Paul George (34 points) and Reggie Jackson (24 points) tried to inspire the fourth seeds on the road in the series opener.

 

Clippers at Suns

After a day off, the playoffs resume with the Suns hosting the Clippers in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals on Tuesday.

Devin Booker recorded his first career triple-double but the Phoenix Suns All-Star insisted he is purely focused on winning after guiding the franchise past the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

Booker was the star of the show with 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists as the second-seeded Suns drew first blood against the Clippers 120-114 in Phoenix on Sunday.

With star team-mate Chris Paul (COVID-19 health and safety protocols) sidelined, Booker – in the midst of his first NBA playoffs campaign – became the first Suns player to register a triple-double in the postseason since Hall of Famer Steve Nash in 2005.

Booker also became the third youngest player in NBA history to record a 40-point triple-double in the playoffs – only Luka Doncic and Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson have achieved the feat at a younger age.

"I'll let you guys do the rankings," Booker said. "I'm just going out there to win every game possible.

"I've been saying this since the start of the playoffs — every next game is the biggest game."

Suns team-mate Jae Crowder said: "I don't understand why everyone's acting surprised at this point.

"This is his first time on this stage but he's capable. He's more than capable. He's more than ready. He prepares like no other."

The Clippers – featuring in the Conference Finals for the first time in their history – were without star Kawhi Leonard for a third consecutive game due to a knee injury.

Paul George (34 points) and Reggie Jackson (24 points) tried to inspire the fourth seeds on the road in the series opener.

"I have no excuse," Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue said. "I thought we played hard and competed. A little credit — they were making shots and we didn't. But I loved our fight. I loved what I saw."

George added: "We got to figure out how to counter, which we will, figure out another game plan. I think this was a good feel-out game to see adjustments. We have been great at adjusting."

Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard – Los Angeles Clippers superstars past and present – will both be absent as the team enter the Western Conference Finals for the first time.

The Clippers play Paul's Phoenix Suns in Game 1 on Sunday, having battled past the top-seeded Utah Jazz.

Leonard and Co became the first team in playoff history to overturn 2-0 deficits twice in the same postseason, having recovered first against the Dallas Mavericks and then against the Jazz.

The Game 6 win over Utah at Staples Center was the Clippers' eighth in this playoff campaign – a team record.

However, they were without two-time NBA Finals MVP Leonard for Game 5 and Game 6 due to a knee injury that is reportedly feared to be serious.

The five-time All-Star had been averaging 30.4 points per game in the postseason but remains out for the trip to Phoenix.

Paul is missing for the Suns, too, though, due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. As with Leonard, this means an indefinite spell on the sidelines.

Sixteen-year veteran Paul is considered among the Clippers' greatest ever players, having spent six seasons in LA.

In the regular season, he has the most assists in Clippers history (4,023), ranks sixth for points (7,674) and eighth for minutes (13,885).

 "Control what we can control," Suns team-mate Devin Booker said. "Obviously Chris is in the health and safety protocols and we don't know the timetable on that, so we just go with what we hear day to day. It's next man up."

The next man up would appear to be Cameron Payne, the backup point guard who has only one start across the regular season and playoffs since moving to Phoenix in 2019.

In 20.4 minutes per game in the postseason, Payne has averaged 10.2 points but just 2.9 assists, although he and Paul have been on the floor together for 54 of the 26-year-old's 204 playoff minutes this year.

For the Clippers, Paul George has come to the fore since Leonard's injury, scoring 37 points at Utah in Game 5 – his highest playoff output for LA and tied for the second-highest of his career.

He will have to continue to perform, as coach Ty Lue said of Leonard: "I know [he is out for] Game 1 for sure.

"Right now he's back home getting treatment. We're not sure about Game 2 yet.

"Until he gets back, we can't do hypotheticals if he's coming back, what game. We have to prepare like he's not playing, just kind of go from there."

Chris Paul crumpled to the floor of Phoenix Suns Arena, grimacing and twisting with pain while he grasped at his right shoulder.

For all his regular-season accolades – 11 All-Star Games, nine All-NBA teams, four assists titles and six steals titles – deep playoff runs have been hard to come by for Paul.

Whether due to fate or disappointing failure, the future Hall of Fame point guard has only played in one Conference Finals series. After suffering a hamstring injury in 2018, Paul watched from the sideline as his Houston Rockets lost Games 6 and 7 to the Golden State Warriors, extinguishing his best chance to date to win a title.

Three years later, as Paul left the floor with a right shoulder injury during Game 1 of the Suns' first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, it must have felt as if the fates were conspiring against him again. After leading Phoenix to the NBA's second-best record in 2020-21, Paul got to face LeBron James and the defending champions as a reward. Then an injury less than 15 minutes into the postseason?

What a hopeless feeling that must have been.

Paul didn't miss a game in the series but looked like a shell of himself through Game 3, averaging 6.7 points on 38.1 per cent shooting as the Suns trailed 2-1 in the series. The tide turned in Game 4, however, with Anthony Davis succumbing to injury and with Paul's shoulder beginning to steadily improve.

After ousting the Lakers in six games, Paul was nearly flawless in a sweep of the Denver Nuggets and MVP Nikola Jokic. He averaged 25.5 points and 10.3 assists over four games and rose to the occasion in the clutch, scoring 17.0 points per game in the second half on absurd 78.8 per cent shooting. In fourth quarters that series, Paul was 16 for 19 from the field (84.2 per cent), including a perfect mark on his four three-point attempts.

Paul totalled 41 assists, the most since 1984-85 in a playoff series while committing five or fewer turnovers. For the third time in his postseason career, he had 15 assists and no turnovers in Game 2, a feat that has only been done seven times in a playoff game since 1984-85.

At 36 years old, Paul painted one of the most memorable masterpieces of his career.

Then came another devastating blow, when Paul was sidelined in accordance with the NBA's COVID-19 health and safety protocols on Wednesday morning, keeping him in quarantine indefinitely. It has not been specified whether Paul has tested positive for the coronavirus, or exactly why he has entered the protocols.

Going forward, the Suns' road only gets tougher, facing either the top-seeded Utah Jazz or Paul's former team – the Los Angeles Clippers – in the Western Conference Finals, and Phoenix could be forced to start the series without their star point guard.

Despite the challenge ahead, it is tempting to consider what a first career NBA Finals appearance – or first career title – would do for the legacy of one of the most underrated players of his era.

Paul's brilliance can sometimes go unnoticed, especially in a league full of talented scorers who appear ready to drop 50 in any given game. His career high is 43 points, and the last time he hit 40 was in 2016.

But what's set Paul apart since the day he entered the league are his abilities to command an offense and distribute to team-mates. He is one of six players with over 10,000 career assists and, all things being equal, will move into third on the all-time helpers list next season, trailing only John Stockton and Jason Kidd.

Among the five players with the most assists in NBA history, Paul's 18.3 points per game is the highest mark, out-pacing Steve Nash's 14.3 by a healthy margin.

Paul is also fifth all-time with 2,332 career steals and could move up a spot or two on that list in two years' time.

But Paul's true impact defies traditional box score statistics. This postseason, the Suns have a scoring differential of plus 13.0 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the court, and Phoenix are shooting nearly 50 per cent from the floor with their conductor in the game.

Moreover, Paul's teams simply win.

His teams have a record of 698-392 when he plays, or an average of 53-29 over an 82-game season. Paul has played for five teams in his career, and each have improved their record in Paul's first year over the previous season. On average, a team adding Paul to the roster increase their win percentage by .168, the equivalent of 14 added wins over an 82-game season.

If Paul never played another game, he would still be a guaranteed Hall of Famer. And after this latest disruption, perhaps the 2021 playoffs will be yet another chapter in a book of postseasons gone wrong for an otherwise legendary player.

But almost every team remaining in this year’s playoffs is dealing with attrition, including both the Suns' potential opponents in the next round. Phoenix are rated by bookmakers as the second favourites for the championship, trailing only the Brooklyn Nets.

Paul's legacy should be able to stand alone, with or without a title. But adding a championship ring would go a long way towards forcing his detractors to finally acknowledge his consistent brilliance.

The Phoenix Suns are waiting.

A series sweep over the Denver Nuggets means Monty Williams' team are through to the Western Conference Finals, where they will meet either the Utah Jazz or the Los Angeles Clippers.

In the East, meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks are serving up a prime example of how a seven-game series can ebb and flow throughout. At 2-2 and with injuries taking a toll, it is tough to predict who will progress.

With the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks also locked in a battle in the East, it is time to take a look at those players who have seized the chance to shine across the past week in the NBA playoffs, as well as those struggling in the shade.

RUNNING HOT...

Chris Paul

Paul set an unusual record as the Suns completed a 4-0 sweep of the Nuggets on Sunday. In contributing 37 points, the 36-year-old became the oldest guard in NBA history to outscore his age in a playoff game.

It capped a memorable week for the 11-time All-Star, who averaged 25.5 points per game in the series. Since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984, Phoenix are the only team to knock out both the previous year's conference finalists in the first two rounds, having also accounted for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Donovan Mitchell

Through three games against the Clippers, Mitchell has been an offensive juggernaut for the Jazz. He has scored a combined total of 112 points to average out for the week at 37.33 per outing.

His output has been aided by getting hot from long range, the guard landing 5.67 three-point attempts per game. Yes, that is correct: Per. Game. An ankle issue could slow him down in the remainder of the series, having already missed the end of the regular season and Utah's first game in the playoffs.

Bruce Brown

With James Harden out due to a hamstring injury, Brown has taken on a greater offensive role for the ailing Nets. In three games across the past week, the 24-year-old has taken 22 shots – he had tallied 31 in the previous six playoff outings – and made his first three-pointer in the playoffs as Brooklyn won Game 2.

His production could be set to further increase if Kyrie Irving joins Harden on the sidelines, the point guard having twisted his right ankle as his team lost Game 4 in Milwaukee on Sunday.

GOING COLD...

Joe Harris

Having been pivotal at the start of the Nets-Bucks series, Harris has cooled off since the teams travelled to Milwaukee. His opening two outings saw him manage 19 and 13 points, but since then just 11 combined in back-to-back defeats.

Harris landed only one of his 11 field goal attempts in Game 3 before fouling out, while Sunday’s Game 4 performance was only marginally better. Perhaps a return to Brooklyn for Game 5 will help him find his scoring touch again.

Bobby Portis

Just like Harris on the opposing roster, Portis is in a slump. The 29-year-old has averaged just 2.0 points per game across the past week, a major drop from his regular-season average of 11.42. He is also contributing less in terms of rebounding too, dipping down to 3.0 per outing.

Fellow big Brook Lopez is another role player to see the points dry up (6.33ppg), leaving Milwaukee to lean heavily on All-Star duo Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton as they bid to make the Eastern Conference Finals.

Marcus Morris Sr and Patrick Beverley

For the second successive series, the Clippers are having to dig themselves out of an early hole. An emphatic Game 3 victory over the Jazz halved the deficit, thanks mainly to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George managing a combined total of 65 points.

The role players will need to help out too if they are to set up a clash with the Suns. Morris Sr has averaged 7.67 points across the past week, not aided by landing just one of his 16 attempts from deep. Team-mate Beverley is also struggling from long range while managing just 10 points in total in his past three games.

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