By Don Wanlass
The Phoenix Suns have more firepower in their starting lineup.
The Clippers have a deeper bench.
That’s the difference so far between the two teams after the first two games of the Western Conference playoff series that is tied 1-1 with game 3 scheduled for April 20 at Crypto.com Arena.
The Clippers took care of business in game 1, defeating the Suns 115-110 behind 38 points from Kawhi Leonard and an overall fine performance by Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook made only 3 of 19 shots and scored 9 points. But he added 10 rebounds and 8 assists, 2 steals and 3 blocked shots while playing solid defense against Kevin Durant early and Devin Booker late.
In game 2, the Suns rode 38 points from Booker and 25 from Durant on their way to a 123-109 victory that was close until the last few minutes.
How long the Suns can continue to ride Durant and Booker remains to be seen. Durant played 45 minutes in game 1, 44 in game 2. Booker played 42 minutes in game 1 and 45 minutes in game 2.
But coach Monte Williams may not have much choice. The Suns depleted much of their bench in the trade that acquired Durant from Brooklyn in February.
In the first two games of the series, the Suns’ non-starters have scored 23 points. The Clippers’ Norman Powell has scored 26 off the bench himself. Terance Mann has scored 20.
The Clippers came out in game 2 like they were going to run the Suns off their home court, leading by as many as 13 points early. But the score was tied 59-59 at halftime and the Suns won going away.
So the Clippers come home for two games holding home court advantage for the time being.
Westbrook continues to be an enigma. After making only 3 of 19 shots in game 1, he made 9 of 16 in game 2, good for 28 points. But the rest of his game wasn’t as effective as it was in game 1.
The Clippers also need to get more out of forward Nicolas Batum, who has scored 3 points in 40 minutes in the two games. Batum is a solid-two-way player who plays good defense, rebounds and can hit the occasional three pointer, but the Clippers need more from him if they are going to win this series.
The league schedule makers didn’t do the Suns and Clippers any favors when scheduling the first round. The two teams meet four times in eight days.
The Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies won’t play game 3 of their seven-game series April 22 until four hours after the Suns and Clippers will have played game 4.
The Suns and Clippers then get two days off before game 5 April 25 in Phoenix.
A series between the fourth and fifth seeds is going to be close and this series figures to go seven.
The difference could be either the play of Westbrook, who must play with the same energy level he had in game 1 while scoring like he did in game 2, and how much Clippers reserves can continue to outscore the Suns’ bench.
Durant, Booker and Leonard are going to score their points. Who else steps up will determine the series.
PLENTY OF REST: The Lakers should have been well rested when they played game 2 of their series with the Memphis Grizzlies April 19. They had two full days of rest after defeating the Grizzlies in game 1, 128-112.
More important, the Grizzlies’ star guard Ja Morant reinjured his right hand in the closing minutes of the first game and was listed as questionable for game 2. With the Grizzlies already missing two starters, an absent Morant would put the Grizzlies in a deep hole they might not be able to climb out of.
The Lakers were the better team for most of game 1, ending it with a 15-0 run. And they played well without a dominating performance from LeBron James.
James scored 21 points, had 11 rebounds and 5 assists. But he was only the team’s fourth leading scorer. And center Anthony Davis was the third leading scorer.
Leading the way was reserve forward Rui Hachimura, who scored 29 points on 11 of 14 shooting. Austin Reaves, who is starting to live up to his nickname Hillbilly Kobe, added 23 points in another solid overall performance.
He was particularly tough during the Lakers late run, leading the offense and playing hard-nosed defense. He threw a pretty behind-the-back pass to Hachimura in the closing minutes for a three-pointer, one of his four assists.
Game 3 of the series is at 7 p.m. April 22 at Crypto.com Arena with game 4 at 7 p.m. April 24. If Morant can’t play in game 2, it could be a very short series for the Grizzlies.
GREATNESS: That’s the one word that came to mind watching Clayton Kershaw win the 200th game of his career April 18.
Kershaw went seven shutout innings, striking out 9, walking nobody and giving up only three hits as the Dodgers ended a two-game losing streak and crawled back to .500 with a 5-0 victory over the New York Mets.
Kershaw is now 200-88 in his 16-year career. That’s a winning percentage of .694, the highest of any pitcher who has won 200 or more games in their career.
His career earned run average of 2.48 is the lowest of any starting pitcher in the last 100 years and is 41st on the all-time list.
With his 9 strikeouts, Kershaw moved up to 22nd on the all-time strikeout list and he could be in the top 20 by the time this year is over.
He is now one of only four active pitchers with 200 wins or more. For many years, 300 wins was the benchmark most starting pitchers aimed for, but with more emphasis on relief pitching and starters not expected to go more than six or seven innings most nights, 200 is likely to become the new benchmark for Hall of Fame consideration.
At this point in his career, Kershaw is almost a shoe-in for Cooperstown. He has been the best left-handed pitcher of his generation, if not the best starting pitcher period.
And, like he has for most of his career, he gave a great effort when the team needed it the most.
The Dodgers are struggling in the first month of the season, with their renowned depth being tested by minor injuries and inconsistency from the back end of the starting rotation and throughout the bullpen.
The Dodgers played Aug. 18 without two key starters — Mookie Betts, who was on paternity leave, and catcher Will Smith who is on the seven-day concussion injured list.
Betts was only expected to miss one game. Smith might return to action this weekend in Chicago.
J.D. Martinez finally started to live up to expectations in the 5-0 win over the Mets, hitting home runs in the first and third innings to stake the Dodgers to a 3-0 lead. That gives Martinez 3 home runs and 14 runs batted in for the season. It came a night after Freddie Freeman hit two home runs in an 8-6 loss.
The Dodgers took a 6-5 lead into the sixth inning in that game but left-handed reliever Alex Vesia couldn’t hold it. He gave up three runs in one-third of an inning.
In five games this year, he is 0-2 with a 12.60 ERA. Last year, in 63 games he was 5-0 with a 2.15 ERA. He is exhibit A of what is wrong with the Dodgers bullpen this year.
But the next night, Kershaw was on his game and the Dodgers righted the ship for one night. It was definitely greatness at work.
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw shows some emotion after striking out Tommy Pham of the New Yorks Mets with two on and two outs in the seventh inning April 18. The Dodgers won 5-0, giving Kershaw the 200th win in his illustrious career.
Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Dodgers