Clippers Vs. Suns - Game Preview

2011/2012 NBA Regular Season

US Airways Center
March 2nd, 2012, 7:30 PM
FSN Prime Ticket, ESPN, KFWB 980 AM
Probable starters:
Chris Paul
PG Steve Nash
Randy Foye SG Jared Dudley
Caron Butler
SF Grant Hill
Blake Griffin
PF Channing Frye
DeAndre Jordan
C Marcin Gortat

The Back Story:

First of 4 meetings (3 of them this month). The Suns won the season series 3 games to 1 last year.

The Big Picture:

As they did on their earlier six game road trip, the Clippers got off on the right foot with a relatively easy win in Sacramento last night. Good thing too, because the Lakers are nipping at their heels, just a game back in the Pacific Division standings. A Clippers loss tonight in Phoenix, coupled with a likely Lakers victory in LA against the Kings, would leave the Clippers just percentage points ahead atop the division. And this is probably how the second half the season is going to be. The Clippers pretty much could not have asked for more improvement in problem areas than they saw last night against the Kings. Paul and Griffin carrying too much of the load? How about six players between 13 and 22 points. Mo Williams slumping? How about 18 points on 14 shots, 4 for 7 on three pointers. No production from the small forward spot? How about 26 points, 13 each from the slumping Caron Butler and Bobby Simmons, in just his second game after signing a 10 day contract. No bench production? How about 41 off the bench after an anemic 11 in the prior game. It doesn't mean those problems are all solved, but it's clearly a step in the right direction. The Kings are 14th in the Western Conference -- the Suns are currently 13th. The Clippers have never had much success in Phoenix, but this is a game they need to win.

The Antagonist:

The Suns kept their window of opportunity open longer than most people thought they could, but it couldn't stay open for ever. Just two seasons ago, after everyone had already written them off as too old, the Suns advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to the Lakers. But they lost Amare Stoudemire to free agency after that, missed the playoffs by six games last year, and have dropped to 13th in the West this year. It was a great ride in the desert -- but it seems to be over. That's not to say the Suns are terrible. They still have two terrific players in Steve Nash and Marcin Gortat, unfortunately you can't really rebuild around the 37 year old Nash. Gortat, at 16 points and 10 rebounds per game with a PER over 21, is currently one of the most productive centers in the NBA. He's no doubt benefiting greatly from playing with Nash, but the guy is good. He's big, he's got good hands, he's much more mobile than you would think to look at him, he's got a great touch around the basket, and he can hit a face up jumper as well. And Nash is, well, still Nash, even at 37. He's leading the NBA with 11 assists per game (no one else is in double figures), and is shooting percentages are just unreal for a point guard -- 54% from the field, 40% from three, a true shooting percentage over 59%. Of course, at 37 Nash can't play the entire game (he's averaging 32 minutes per) and his backup is Sebastian Telfair, so that's problematic for Phoenix.

The Subplots

  • Tonight's Special Guest Recapper. Citizen LJ Hann.
  • Suns Q&A. In anticipation of this game I exchanged some questions with Seth Pollack of SBNation's Suns blog, Bright Side of the Sun. Check out his answers for more in depth Suns knowledge than I can provide. You can also head over to BSotS to read my answers to his questions about the Clippers.
  • Key Suns Metrics
    Pace: 92.2 (9th of 30 NBA Teams)
    Off Rtg: 102.9 (18th of 30)
    Def Rtg: 105.2 (20th of 30)
    Mediocre on offense, mediocre on defense. Mediocre.
  • Key Clippers Metrics
    Pace: 89.9 (23rd of 30)
    Off Rtg: 108.2 (3rd of 30)
    Def Rtg: 105.6 (21st of 30)
    The offense number keeps getting better, and the defense number keeps getting worse (though the 11-0 garbage time run in Sacramento didn't help there). The Clippers had better figure out their defensive issues soon if they want to go anywhere in the playoffs.
  • Gortat. Among NBA centers this season, only two have a better PER than Marcin Gortat. Those two are Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum. I realize that PER is not the be all end all metric, and that playing with Nash likely inflates Gortat's numbers some. Nonetheless, this feels reasonable to me -- beyond Howard and Bynum (and maybe Tyson Chandler, who is so good defensively that he stands out from the pack), Gortat is clearly in the next group of centers with Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert and those guys.
  • Pick and roll defense. This game may be decided by which team does a better job of defending the pick and roll. With Steve Nash on one side and Chris Paul on the other, both teams have offenses that consist almost exclusively of picking and rolling. Don't be surprised if Kenyon Martin gets a lot of burn in place of DeAndre Jordan because of his superior defense against the P/R. However, hopefully the Clippers can figure out how to help and recover, rather than switching every time. The switch killed them down the stretch against San Antonio, and I have a feeling that Nash will make them pay tonight as well.
  • Three point shooting. This one is actually pretty hard to get used to. The Clippers take more three pointers per game than the Suns (21.7 to 20.1). They make more (7.6 to 6.8). And they shoot a higher percentage (35% to 34%). That's hard to believe, after all those years of great shooting Suns teams.
  • Bobby Simmons. After looking tentative and lost in his first NBA game in over a year on Tuesday, Bobby Simmons looked like someone who might actually help the team on Thursday. He scored 10 first half points on 4 of 5 shooting, and added a three pointer (his third of the game) in the second half. He confidently took the open looks he got within the offense -- something that Ryan Gomes hasn't done since early last season. Simmons' 13 in his second game bests Gomes' season high of 11, in 30 games, including 2 starts. Simmons' 3 three pointers in one game is one fewer than Games has on the season. Is it enough to be more productive than Gomes? The bar's not real high.
  • Setting Suns. In addition to Nash, the Suns also start 39 year old Grant Hill, the second oldest player in the league. The rest of the team is relatively young -- Michael Redd, recently signed and little used, is the only other player on the roster over 30. But Nash means everything to the team, and Hill is an important piece as well, and the rest of the roster may not be old, but they're also not that good.
  • Nash's future. The question of what to do with Steve Nash hangs over the Suns' franchise. Unlike Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, Nash, a two time NBA MVP who's never been to an NBA Final, has never even hinted at wanting out of Phoenix. I asked Seth Pollack what he thought would happen with Nash, who's a free agent this summer. Check out the Q&A for his answer. Spoiler alert -- he thinks Nash will retire a Sun.
  • Futility in Phoenix. The Clippers have lost eight straight games in Phoenix. They've lost 14 of their last 16 overall. When Chris Paul heard about the Clippers' lack of success in Utah, he asked Ralph Lawler to let him know whenever the team came up against an opponent that has dominated the series. The Suns definitely qualify.
  • Pacific Division Standings. The Clippers have never won the Pacific Division in the 34 seasons since they moved from Buffalo to California. We know that the Lakers have won most of those division titles, but the Suns have been near the top of the division almost the entire time as well. In fact, in those 34 seasons, the Clippers have finished with a better record than the Suns just once -- the Clippers have finished ahead of the Lakers four times. So to be looking down in the standings at the Suns is actually a more rare occurrence than to be ahead of the Lakers.
  • Suns Excellence. It has been 24 seasons since the Suns missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons, but it looks as if that streak will end this year. As it happens, that run of success started in the 88-89 season while I was living in Phoenix, and explains a lot about why I am an unrelenting fan of upstarts and underdogs today. The Kevin Johnson-Tom Chambers Suns team of the late 80s and early 90s is arguably my favorite NBA team of all time (though they started to lose me with the Charles Barkley trade). Phoenix has had a remarkable run of excellence since then, and has effectively re-invented the team a couple of times while avoiding prolonged rebuilding phases. The Steve Nash era may not be over yet, but it will be over soon one way or another - can the Suns re-invent themselves yet again?
  • Nash's rookie season. Steve Nash was originally drafted by the Suns in 1996, as a project point guard. He joined a team that already had Kevin Johnson and Sam Cassell playing the point, so he was pretty well buried on the depth chart. But a month into the season Phoenix traded Cassell - for Jason Kidd. That's correct - in 96-97, the Phoenix roster featured four different point guards who would be All Stars in their careers. Nash was traded to the Mavericks before his third season and his career took off from there.
  • Nash in the NCAA tournament. Given that we're in March Madness, let us not forget that as a freshman Nash led his Santa Clara Broncos to a first round win over Arizona in one of those rare 15-2 upsets, way back in 1993. As a senior, Nash's Broncos upset Maryland in the first round. You gotta love WCC teams in the tourney!
  • From the Urban Dictionary:
    v. the inverse of moon (to show one's bare buttocks), therefore 'to sun' is 'to show one's genetalia'
    mooning them wasn't humiliating enough, so he whipped down his drawers and sunned them.
  • Get the Suns perspective at Bright Side of the Sun.
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