The Western Conference finals feature some fresh faces who haven't been in this position in a long time, if at all.
The second-seeded Phoenix Suns are in the West finals for the first time since 2010 after sweeping MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets. However, Chris Paul has been ruled out for Game 1 after he entered the NBA's health and safety protocols, leaving the young Suns without their veteran floor general. Paul's long-term status for the series is uncertain.
The fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers broke through to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history, but they have availability concerns of their own. Kawhi Leonard won't play in Game 1 due to a right knee injury, and there are fears he could miss the entire series.
Kawhi Leonard's status for the Western Conference finals is still uncertain, although he is expected to miss the first two games in Phoenix. (Photo: Mark J. Terrill, AP)
Who will move on to the NBA Finals? Here are our team's predictions from USA TODAY Sports' Mark Medina, Jeff Zillgitt and Matt Eppers, and The Arizona Republic's Duane Rankin:
MEDINA: Suns in 7. I hate to keep adding qualifiers to the Clippers’ run here because they deserve praise for all of their resilience. But part of their upset over Utah had to do with an injured Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley. It will be hard for the Clippers to continue to play without Kawhi Leonard against a healthy Phoenix Suns team that has had a week to prepare and rest before the West Finals.
ZILLGITT: Clippers in 6. Phoenix had the conference’s second-best record, and it has been the best team in the playoffs, at least by net rating — ahead of Philadelphia and the Clippers. But that was with Chris Paul. His status for the series will have an impact on which team advances, and without him, the edge goes the Clippers who just showed they can win a series without Kawhi Leonard available, at least for two games. The Clipper head into the series with confidence, and the Suns head into it with confidence for sure, but also uncertainty at playing without their leader.
RANKIN: Suns in 7. The status of Chris Paul (health/safety protocols) and Kawhi Leonard (knee) makes this even more of a pick-em series. It’ll definitely be chippy based on the regular-season battles. The Clippers came back from an 0-2 deficit to stun the top-seeded Utah Jazz in six, but Phoenix has the defense to counter their 3-point shooting. Expecting Paul to return in better condition than Leonard, if he’s able to do so.Phoenix gets the edge with Game 7 at home.
EPPERS: Clippers in 7. L.A.'s checkered playoff history and Kawhi Leonard's knee injury loom large over the series, but the Clippers breaking through to the NBA Finals feels fitting for such a chaotic year. Clippers coach Ty Lue has done a masterful job of making adjustments and finding the right lineups, and Paul George has elevated his game to be able to continue being the main option should Leonard miss more time.
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