What is it about the Phoenix Suns?
The Los Angeles Clippers have been pretty good in close games this season. They certainly haven't won all of them by any means, but they've won more than they've lost. But against the Suns, three of the four games came down to the wire, and all three times the Suns beat the Clippers.
In the finale to their season series tonight, there's little question that the game meant more to the Suns, who came from behind to win 93-90. The Clippers after all have already secured their playoff berth, and are likely to finish as the fourth seed regardless of the outcome of this game. And even if they could have moved up to third, there's not a huge difference between third and fourth when you get right down to it. The Suns on the other hand are playing for their playoff lives. So maybe there was more urgency for the Suns, at least this time around.
I certainly wasn't particularly fond of either of the foul calls that put the Suns on the line in the final minute. Randy Foye's block on Marcin Gortat was as clean as a block can get, and while Kenyon Martin probably fouled Steve Nash on the next possession with the Suns down one, it wasn't clear cut and that call essentially decided the game.
But the play that changed the game occurred earlier in the quarter, in my opinion.
When Robin Lopez committed a flagrant foul on Blake Griffin with the Clippers up three and a little over 6 minutes remaining, it clearly energized Phoenix. And while I don't have a big problem with the calls at the end of the game (they clearly blew the Foye call, but refs blow calls all the time), I do have a problem with how the refs handled the situation after Lopez' foul. Obviously they gave Lopez the Flagrant 2, which is as much as they're allowed to do. But by also assessing a technical foul to Mo Williams, for a supposed transgression that was either not captured by the myriad TNT camera angles, or more likely not really worthy of a technical foul, they made the call a statistical stalemate. Think about it: Griffin, a 50% foul shooter gets two free throws, while the best free throw shooter on the Suns gets one. You would expect each team to come away from that call with a single point, which is exactly what happened. So the net effect of Lopez' flagrant foul is that the Clippers get the ball out of bounds with the margin unchanged, no different than a standard non-shooting foul.
It's a relatively minor point in the scheme of things, but I think it's a terrible precedent to be handing out questionable technical fouls to a player in the heat of the moment after his teammate has been flagrantly fouled. We know it's going to happen, and why would the officials want to essentially reward the team who committed the flagrant? Sure, part of the penalty is that Lopez is ejected, but with 6 minutes remaining in the game, Gortat is going to be returning at that time anyway (in fact, if I recall correctly, he was already at the scorer's table) so in the end it is a great play for the Suns, a momentum changing play. I knew it at the time -- why wouldn't the refs know it? And if they know it, why would they want to be a party to it? The flagrant foul rules were created to remove the incentive for teams to commit such fouls -- but the refs essentially provide a little extra incentive if they're going to hand out cheap T's in the resulting melee, which, let's face, we know is going to result. I have a problem with that.
And lest anyone accuse me of homerism, go back and read what I wrote during the 2007 playoffs when Robert Horry hip checked Steve Nash resulting in the suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw. I have a big, BIG problem with providing an incentive, ANY incentive to a team that roughs up a player. If scrubs like Lopez and Horry deliver cheap shots to stars like Griffin and Nash, teammates are clearly going to react. For the referees (or the league) to then overreact to that reaction is counterproductive -- that is if the goal is to not get players hurt.
Although the Clippers scored on the resultant possession after the flagrant foul giving L.A. a five point lead, the Suns were rejuvenated on both ends of the court. Within 90 seconds the score was tied. Another 90 seconds after that and the Suns had their first lead since early in the second half with just over three minutes to go.
Give the Suns credit -- they hit some big shots. Channing Frye made a big three directly after the flagrant foul to further energize the team, and Jared Dudley made a three with under two minutes to go to tie the game after the Clippers had re-established a lead. And Nash's one-handed-scoop-old-dude-at-the-YMCA layup was almost the duplicate of one he hit to beat the Clippers in the second game of the 09-10 season. I guess there's a reason the Suns have dominated the Clippers in recent years and have now won 10 straight in Phoenix against the LAC.
There's actually another pretty simple explanation for why the Clippers were unable to extend their winning streak to six games and pull even with the Lakers tonight: they didn't get enough scoring from the bench. Mo Williams and Nick Young, who have been averaging a combined 26.5 points per game since Mo's return to the lineup, tonight scored just nine points on 4-12 shooting. Mo missed both of his three pointers, including the potential game winner with four seconds left. As a team the Clippers made just five three pointers, with Foye responsible for three of those. We've always said that when the Clippers are making their perimeter shots, they are tough to beat. The converse is true as well: when they are not making their perimeter shots, they are not so tough to beat.
What happened to Blake Griffin in this game is a bit of a mystery. After making 7 of 13 shots in the first quarter for 14 points, he was 0-4 the rest of the game -- and one of those four shots was a desperation three at the final buzzer that came pretty close to tying the game. Why didn't he get any shots to speak of after the first quarter? Part of it had to do with Phoenix's willingness to put him on his wallet. In addition to Lopez' flagrant, Gortat left a welt by Griffin's eye when he smacked him in the face on another drive. But it doesn't really explain why he got so few shot attempts in his last 27 minutes on the floor. For some reason the Clippers were unable to get Griffin the ball in his spots, after doing so consistently in the first quarter.
With the loss, the prospect of catching the Lakers for the Pacific Division title grows dimmer. It could still happen, but the Clippers would have to win their final three while the Lakers are losing two of their final three. Then there is the question of the Grizzlies. Assuming Memphis will win their remaining four games (and with Dwight Howard officially out for the season at this point, it's almost a given) the Clippers must win at least two of their last three to avoid dropping to fifth and losing home court advantage in the first round.
So losing this one definitely hurts.