Phoenix 109 - Clippers 103

The Clippers have now played six games since Baron Davis joined Chris Kaman and Zach Randolph on the injured list.  That's in addition to Ricky Davis and Mike Taylor out of the lineup.  By my count, that's 5 of the Clippers top 8 players sidelined for those six games, meaning that beyond Marcus Camby, Al Thornton and Eric Gordon, any one else taking the floor for the team would be getting spot duty at best on a fully healthy team.  (One exception to that may be Mardy Collins, who could conceivably be supplanting Taylor as the backup point guard with his recent performances.)

Nonetheless, severely shorthanded though they have been, the team has been competitive in four of the six games and had a legitimate chance to win three of them.  They took at 1 point lead over Detroit into the final seconds, led Dallas by 5 with 2 minutes to go, and today they were ahead of Phoenix by 3 with 4 and a half minutes left, after overcoming a 15 point deficit against the red hot Suns.  Of course, if you're a citizen of Clips Nation, you already know how all of those games ended (and even if you're not, you can probably guess). Suffice it to say, the losing streak stands at 11.

This Phoenix game was clearly the least likely of the bunch.  Detroit was missing two starters.  And I think we can safely conclude that Phoenix has been playing better than Dallas of late, given the results of their Friday meeting.  And then there's Eric Gordon.  Against Detroit, he scored a career-high 31 on 9 for 21 shooting.  Against Dallas, he bettered that number by 1, and shot 9 for 18.  He was the reason they had a chance in those games.  Today, he was 2 for 14.

Now, prior to this game, you tell me that EJ is going to shoot 2 for 14 for the short-handed Clippers, and I say LA loses by 40.  I mean, if EJ is having an off-night, they're down to Al Thornton as the only legitimate option on offense. 

Yet somehow, the Clippers stayed close, and even battled back from a 13 point deficit when the Suns tried to put the game away at the end of the third.  Crazy.

Before I go on, let's spend a little time on the third quarter officiating, and on charge-block calls in particular. 

During the game, there were 9 offensive fouls.  Eight of them were against the Clippers; one against the Suns.  During the third quarter alone, there were 4 charges called on the Clippers.  Now, I'm going to go on record as saying that I thought most of the calls were correct.  The second Thornton-Nash encounter was questionable - looked like Nash was sliding right to me - but I would have a tough time arguing too vehemently about many others.  Still, we hear all the time about how tough the charge-block call is, how the majority of them could go either way.  Well, it seemed pretty easy to make the call in this game.  If Steve Nash or Grant Hill was on the floor (veterans, all stars, all pros) and Al Thornton or Eric Gordon was holding the ball, the call went against the Clippers.  If it's such a tough call, if it's supposed to even out, why was it so easy, and why didn't it even out? 

Usually referees have memories too.  If a player gets the benefit of a close call one moment, they will likely not have the next whistle go their way.  But in a matter of 70 seconds in the third quarter, Nash got three straight calls on defense.  Thornton charge, Thornton charge, no call when he stripped Mardy Collins.  As I already mentioned, I thought the second charge-block was a block, and was very surprised when it was called against Al given that the ref knew he'd just given Nash that call 30 seconds earlier.  But the Collins strip was pretty ridiculous.  Mike Smith said he heard the slap from his broadcast position, and the replay clearly showed Nash hitting Collins halfway up his forearm.  I'm not talking about 'hand is part of the ball' questionable, I'm not talking a little bit of wrist - I'm saying he got more arm than ball.  The NBA insists over and over that all of the myths are not true - there is no star treatment, there is no such thing as a make up call, etc.  Well, that may be, and this may simply have been an isolated bad call (and unfortunately, the Clippers certainly were not benefiting from the make ups either).  But it sure seemed like Steve Nash was getting a lot of calls - and let's face it, this is not a guy with the defensive skills of Bruce Bowen.

MDsr also felt like the Clippers were getting the short end of the stick.  A few minutes later he picked up consecutive technical fouls and an ejection arguing a non call on Grant Hill's block on EJ.  The irony here is that he picked the wrong call to dispute so vehemently - Hill's block was surgically clean.  But of course it was an accumulation that resulted in his decision (and I'm pretty sure it was a decision) to get himself tossed.

A lot of things can impact an NBA game.  I'm not saying that the referees gave this game to the Suns.  But they certainly didn't give it to the Clippers.  Take for instance two plays down the stretch.  Shaq lowers his shoulder into Brian Skinner to clear space and then turns to the basket and scores as Skinner is trying to grab him.  A three point play for the Suns that could just as easily have been a turnover on an offensive foul.  40 seconds later, Thornton picked up his fourth charge of the game running into Jason Richardson.  The correct call, I believe, but one that often goes the other way as well.  A potential three point play for the Clippers, wiped off the board by a whistle.  The score after those two plays had the Clippers behind by 5 - both of them go the other way and LA is up one - and the game was over.

The good news in all of this is that wins don't particularly matter to the Clippers.  I would no doubt feel much differently about the 8 to 1 ratio of offensive foul calls if the Clippers were battling for a playoff spot.  And you have to give the Suns credit.  Nash and Richardson and Hill were stepping in to cut off lanes - not my favorite play in basketball, but effective.  Nash drew five charges himself in this game.  Impressive.  That's better than 5 blocked shots - better than 5 steals.  You end a scoring threat, win the ball for your team AND hang a foul on an opponent. 

And for those who want to crucify Al Thornton and his basketball IQ for picking up 4 charges, I'm going to defend him a little.  None of these charges really struck me much like the 'head down' variety - I saw him trying to change direction, with the Suns guessing correctly.  Again, give the Suns defenders credit for having scouted Al well.  But let's recognize that Al had a terrific game, and more than anyone else kept the Clippers in it.  He was 10 for 16 for 23 points.  Adding in the 4 charges, he's still the equivalent of 10 for 20.  If he gets the benefit of any of those calls, he's going to the line and scoring more.  Let's face it - we want him going to the rack rather than shooting jump shots.  The price of that is going to be some charging calls, and as long as they're not really bone-headed (and I didn't see any of that variety) you have to take the good with the bad.

My assumption at the end of the third - the Suns up 13, the Clippers missing many opportunities with offensive fouls, calls seemingly not going their way, coach ejected - was that the game was already over.  It seemed unlikely that a young team would be able to climb such a big hill.  But they did, with Steve Novak hitting crucial threes along the way (why, oh why, did Jason Richardson keep leaving the guy?) 

But the simple fact is that the Clippers came back with Steve Nash and Grant Hill on the bench.  We said in the preview that the Suns reserves are less than impressive, and the really pretty bad in this game.  Barbosa, Barnes and Amundson (the only three reserves who appeared in the game) combined to shoot 4 for 19.  Nash and Hill sat out the first 6 minutes of the fourth quarter, during which time the Clippers turned a 13 point deficit into a 1 point lead.  But Phoenix settled down and won the game with their starters back on the floor.  It's not news that Nash is vital to the team.  They don't really even have a backup point guard - Barbosa tries, but that's not who he is.  What surprised me was the performance of Hill.

I'm thrilled that Grant Hill is still in the league and having success.  After all the injuries he's suffered in his career, it's great that he's a starter in the NBA again, even if his first team all pro days are behind him.  But when I watched Hill on the Suns last season, he seemed out of place in D'Antoni's offense.  It looked like they wanted him to spread the floor and shoot threes on Nash kick outs, a la Raja Bell, and that's not who Grant Hill is.  Of course, on the D'Antoni Suns, the ball was in Nash's hands about 90% of the time.  Hill is a playmaker - he can create shots for himself, or for his teammates.  Porter, partly to keep Nash fresh, is allowing other people to handle the ball, and although I haven't watched a lot of Suns basketball this season, Hill has looked great against the Clippers and the Mavs in their last two games. 

All in all, a quality outing for the undermanned Clippers.  Mardy Collins had his fourth straight solid game as a starter.  10 dayer Fred Jones scored 13 and dished 10 assists (I'd venture a guess that Jones has never played point guard in his life before this stint with the Clippers).  Novak was three for three from deep, which is exactly what he has to do to be in this league - he has to make his open threes.  And Camby was his usual stellar self with 18 and 18.  Even Brian Skinner was effective, with 11 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocked shots and yeoman's work against the big prickly pear.

This group continues to play hard and exceed expectations.  If they play like this - and if Eric Gordon shoots well, which I assume he will - the Clippers are going to end their 11 game losing streak this week.

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