Clippers-Suns preview: Needing a win in Phoenix

USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers need a win to snap a two game losing streak, and the reeling Suns just plain need a win after firing head coach Alvin Gentry, hiring Lindsey Hunter, and losing their top assistant coaches in the changeover.

2012/2013 NBA Regular Season
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32-11

14-28
January 24th, 2013, 7:30 PM
US Airways Center
TNT, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
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Probable Starters
Eric Bledsoe PG Goran Dragic
Willie Green SG Jared Dudley
Caron Butler SF P.J. Tucker
Blake Griffin PF Luis Scola
DeAndre Jordan C Marcin Gortat
Advanced Stats through games of Jan. 23
91.9 (11th of 30) Pace 92.1 (9th of 30)
110.2 (4th of 30) ORtg 103.0 (22nd of 30)
101.4 (5th of 30) DRtg 107.3 (25th of 30)
Injuries
Chris Paul (knee) DTD
Channing Frye (enlarged heart) out
Chauncey Billups (ankle) out
Jermaine O'Neal (personal) out
Trey Thompkins (knee) out

The Back Story:

The Big Picture:

Of the Clippers 11 losses this season, 10 of them have come in pairs (including two pairs, or four in a row, way back in December). After back-to-back losses to the Warriors and Thunder on Monday and Tuesday, it's time for a win. Fortunately, the Clippers are facing the reeling Phoenix Suns, tied for last place in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, they'll be facing them without their point guard and team leader Chris Paul. Paul bruised his knee cap almost two weeks ago now, sat out three games, and then tried to return and was obviously slowed by it in the Golden State loss. Coach Vinny Del Negro vows that Paul will sit until the knee is completely healed this time. While the Clippers managed to win the three road games Paul sat out when he first hurt the knee, no one is under any delusions about his importance to the team. The Clippers are deep and Eric Bledsoe is a major talent who the Clippers are lucky to have filling in at the point, but Paul is the engine that drives the Clippers and without him things will be much tougher. And although the Clippers did win by 26 here in Phoenix a month ago, let's not forget that the Suns had won 10 straight before that and have owned the Clippers in recent years.

The Antagonist:

It's been a really bad week for the Suns. A week ago they lost to Milwaukee, their 13th loss in 15 games, and found themselves all alone in last place in the Western Conference. For a team that had delusions of fighting for a playoff spot before the season, and more importantly a team that has made the playoffs 28 times in the last 37 years, that was unacceptable. The Suns fired head coach Alvin Gentry and named their Player Development Coordinator Lindsey Hunter, who has no coaching experience, the interim head coach. This decision had some further repercussions (see below). Of course all this coaching drama ignores the real problem: the Suns aren't very good. Their best players, Marcin Gortat and Goran Dragic, would be nice role players on a good team but aren't capable of carrying a team themselves, and they tried to build a stop gap roster this season with a bunch of spare parts that aren't helping them move towards a better team in the future (Luis Scola and Jermaine O'Neal are too old, Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson are just not very good, etc.). The Suns are bad now, and they'll be bad for a while unless they get really lucky in the draft. Phoenix did manage to win last night in Sacramento, so Hunter is now undefeated in his coaching career.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. The Suns recent play has dropped them down near the bottom of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Not good.
  • Phoenix coaching drama. When the Suns named Hunter their interim coach, they bypassed Alvin Gentry's top two assistants, Dan Majerle and Elston Turner. Majerle played most of his career in Phoenix where he remains very popular and he had been a longtime assistant. Turner has been on seemingly every team's short list for head coach for the past five seasons, but has never gotten the top job. Being bypassed for Hunter, new to the Suns organization and without any coaching experience at all, did not sit well with either Majerle or Turner, who have both parted ways with the Suns at this point. So basically Hunter has no coaching experience, and no veteran assistant's to help him. I guess we'll find out if coaching matters.
  • 14 points per game. The Suns leading scorer this season is Goran Dragic at 14 points per game. Actually, he's averaging a tad less than 14 points per game at 13.975 through 40 games played. There are 73 NBA players averaging 14 or more points per game, at least one from every other team. Several teams have four 14 point per game scorers. The Clippers have three players averaging at least 16 points per game. The Suns have zero star power, and you can't win in the NBA without it.
  • Griffin has to be the man. While Paul is out, Blake Griffin will have to carry a big load for the Clippers. For all the team's depth, playing without the starting backcourt the first unit doesn't have a lot of places to go for a basket. Willie Green and DeAndre Jordan are limited offensive players, and Caron Butler hasn't exactly been a go to scorer for a few seasons. That leaves Griffin as by far the team's best option in the half court. He's been great in recent games, scoring 26 and 31 in the last two. The Clippers need more of that, more rookie season style Griffin, while Paul is out.
  • TNT Game. The Clippers' excellent record in national TV games will be challenged in February when they play at Miami, at New York, at the Lakers and home against the Spurs in network games. But they should be able to extend their record to 11-1 in national TV games with a win on TNT tonight.
  • The All Star coach race. For what it's worth (and that's not much) the Western Conference All Star coach will come down to a choice between Vinny Del Negro and Gregg Popovich (the coach comes from the team with the best record, but the same person can't coach two years in a row, so Scott Brooks, who coached last season, is ruled out). The Clippers are currently tied with the Spurs in the loss column and play six games between now and the February 3rd deadline for choosing the coach, while the Spurs play only four games. In other words, if the Clippers win six straight, they can tie the Spurs, regardless of what San Antonio does in their four games. I have no idea what the tie-breaker would be in that situation -- if it's head-to-head, then Del Negro will be in, but for something as silly as this, maybe they'll just flip a coin. At any rate, even though the Spurs are ahead now and have a much easier upcoming schedule, the Clippers can still make a race of this.
  • Inverted Pacific Division. For a decade or more, the Pacific Division always featured the Lakers and the Suns and to a lesser extent the Kings at the top and going to the playoffs every year, with the Clippers and the Warriors bringing up the rear and heading to the lottery. Right now the Division standings are almost completely upside down from what we're used to with the Clippers leading the division at 32-11 and the Warriors second at 26-15. Meanwhile the Lakers, Suns and Kings are all at least 8 games below .500 and currently out of playoff position. If I recall correctly, last season was the first time -- EVER -- that the Clippers actually finished ahead of the Suns in the division standings. Amazing.
  • Suns at home. The Suns were 9-5 at home when these two teams played in Phoenix a little over a month ago. They're now 10-11 at the US Airways Center, having lost six of seven including the last four in a row.
  • Gortat. When the Suns traded for Marcin Gortat a couple of season ago it was an interesting gamble on a promising center who had not gotten enough minutes in Orlando playing behind Dwight Howard. Last season in his first full season with the Suns, Gortat averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds per game while making .555 from the field and looked like one of the best centers in the league. This year he's down to 11.6 points and 8.9 rebounds. It wouldn't be the first time that a big man's productivity dropped off when he lost Steve Nash as a teammate of course, but the Suns have got to be very disappointed with Gortat this season. They thought they had a center to build around, and now they're not so sure. In fact, the Suns traded away Robin Lopez over the summer and so far Lopez, who is four years younger, is having arguably the better season.
  • Pick and roll. The Suns will run a ton of pick and roll today with Dragic and Gortat. The Clippers have been better defending the pick and roll this season, but will need to be ready for it. If DeAndre Jordan struggles on defense you can probably expect Vinny Del Negro to use an early hook and get Lamar Odom in the game.
  • Jordan on defense. This game will present DeAndre Jordan with several different defensive challenges depending on who the Suns run out there. If it's Gortat, he'll have to defend the Gortat-Dragic pick and roll. If he ends up on Scola, he'll have to deal with the bizarre array of post moves (fakes, pivots, spins, flips, scoops and other things that defy description) that the crafty Argentine will throw at him while also staying up on his face up jumper. If he has to check Markieff Morris, he'll have to pursue him out to the three point line where the stretch four is shooting .356 this season. It's going to be a good challenge for DJ who needs to stay disciplined and remember the scouting report for all of these guys.
  • Connections. Grant Hill rejuvenated his career over the course of five seasons in Phoenix. Matt Barnes was Hill's teammate on the Suns for one season as well. Sebastian Telfair of the Suns was a Clipper for a half a season. The Suns recently fired head coach Alvin Gentry was the Clippers head coach a decade ago, and Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro ended his playing career in Phoenix and then transitioned into a front office job there before moving to the bench in Chicago.
  • Get the Phoenix perspective at Bright Side of the Sun.
  • Lyrical reference:

    Yankee Bayonet -- The Decemberists

    But when the sun breaks
    To no more bullets in Battle Creek
    Then will you make a grave
    For I will be home then
    I will be home then
    I will be home then
    I will be home then

    One of my favorite Decemberists songs (and that's saying a lot) the harmonies on this duet are really lovely. And who doesn't enjoy a duet sung by a dead confederate soldier and his sweetheart far away?
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