PHOENIX — The chant grew louder each time. So did the confident tone.
Moments after the Phoenix Suns cemented a 120-114 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference finals, the 16,583 fans in the sellout crowd streamed out to the arena concourse, repeating what has recently become a catchphrase.
“Suns in four!!” the fans yelled in unison. “Suns in four!!”
That’s the same chant made by Suns fan Nick McKellar, who attended Game 1 after defending himself against two rowdy Denver Nuggets fans in the last round.
Suns fans have every right to feel confident, as their team has won eight consecutive games, the longest playoff winning streak in team history. But they might be overly optimistic in expressing hopes for a sweep against the Clippers because both teams were missing key players in Game 1.
Suns guard Chris Paul remained in the NBA’s health and safety protocols and Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard was out for a third consecutive game with an injured right knee.
Both teams have the roster depth, coaching smarts and collective resiliency to fight in the postseason trenches. The question is which team is better at handling their star’s absence.
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker celebrates next to Los Angeles Clippers guard Terance Mann in the closing seconds of Game 1.
“It’s not going to be gravy all the way through. It’s not going to be sweet all the way through,” Phoenix’s Devin Booker said. “Our job is to control the controllables. Whatever the situation is, we have to keep playing through it and keep playing hard. That’s been the story of our team, and it’s been it for the whole season. Keep playing hard no matter the circumstances.”
The Suns fulfilled that without Paul. Booker posted a triple-double with 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists. Suns center Deandre Ayton showcased his inside threat with 20 points and nine rebounds. And the Suns had plenty of help from Mikal Bridges (14 points), Jae Crowder (13), Cam Johnson (12) and Cameron Payne (11).
It remains unclear how long the Suns will be without Paul. Suns coach Monty Williams listed him as “day-to-day” and offered no clarity on when Paul can resume practicing. That makes his status iffy for Game 2 Tuesday considering he would need time to ramp up his workload.
The Suns, though, have shown they can adjust well with or without him. The Lakers might have won their first-round series against Phoenix had LeBron James and Anthony Davis not nursed various ailments. But during that series, the Suns learned how to make the best of either a fully healthy, a limited or an absent Paul.
“We’re always a confident group. We feel like we have earned the right to be here. We have also a great deal of respect for our opponent. And when you have that much respect for an opponent, you better have confidence,” Williams said. “Our guys haven’t complained one time. At least not to me. They have just gone about their business.”
So have the Clippers.
Only 1½ days after eliminating the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of their second-round series, the Clippers looked noticeably fatigued throughout Game 1. Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. was dealing with some pain in his knees. And given the early afternoon start, the Clippers only had time to squeeze in a walk-through at a hotel ballroom on Saturday.
But even if the Clippers have played 14 games in only 29 days, they still competed. Paul George played 39 minutes, making him the NBA’s leader in postseason playing time (568 minutes), and had 34 points while shooting 10-for-26 from the field. Reggie Jackson still produced despite his noticeable exhaustion (24 points). And DeMarcus Cousins posted 11 points and four rebounds after receiving unexpected playing time.
“No excuses. We were tired playing every other day, but we have to play the cards that we’re dealt,” Jackson said. “I think we’re built for it. We’re built for this team. We’re not going to make excuses. We’re going to find a way.”
It appears likely that the Clippers will have to continue to find a way without Leonard.
Although coach Ty Lue has not ruled him out for Game 2, Leonard did not fly with the team to Phoenix. The Clippers sorely missed his scoring punch and perimeter defense.
“I expect us to get better as the series goes. We’ve been great at it,” George said. “It’s nothing to panic over right now. We’ll figure out what we need to do better. The good thing about it is we expect a long series. All they did was win one game.”
After all, the Clippers overcame 0-2 deficits to Dallas and Utah. Throughout those series, the Clippers had more success defending Luka Doncic and Donovan Mitchell as each game evolved. Some of that had to do with those players’ injury issues. But some also had to do with Lue interchanging big and small lineups as well as schemes.
No wonder Cousins repeatedly said, “We’ll adjust.”
The Suns have done the same thing, though.
“Monty is a coach who knows how to encounter adversity,” Ayton said. “He makes us feel comfortable with change. The things he does best is communicate what we do best. We stuck to that throughout the season and that’s what we’re doing now throughout the playoffs.”
Perhaps that nuance does not sound enticing to Suns fans rooting for another sweep. But it’s safe to say that the remainder of the series will become as captivating as Game 1.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA’s Clippers, Suns must adjust without Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul