Clippers-Suns preview: Fun with the Suns

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Has any team in the West given the Clippers more trouble than the Suns? Aside from one great third period in Phoenix last week, the Suns have outplayed the Clippers this season.

2013/2014 NBA Regular Season
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vs
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44-20

36-26
March 10th, 2014, 7:30 PM
STAPLES Center
Prime Ticket, NBA-TV, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Win-Loss Breakdown
18-9 East 13-8
26-11 West 23-18
26-5 Home 22-12
18-15 Road 14-14
21-14 .500+ 13-20
20-6 .500- 23-6
8-2 L10 5-5
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Goran Dragic
Darren Collison SG Gerald Green
Matt Barnes SF P.J. Tucker
Blake Griffin PF Channing Frye
DeAndre Jordan C Alex Len Miles Plumlee
Advanced Stats
98.27 (6th of 30) Pace 98.17 (8th of 30)
109.4 (2nd of 30) ORtg 107.1 (8th of 30)
101.7 (8th of 30) DRtg 104.1 (16th of 30)
Injuries/Other
J.J. Redick (back) out
Eric Bledsoe (meniscus) out
Jamal Crawford (strained calf) doubtful
Emeka Okafor (neck surgery) out
Jared Dudley (back spasms) GTD

The Back Story (The season series is tied, 1-1):

Date Venue Final

12/30/13 Los Angeles Suns 107, Clippers 88 Recap Box
03/04/14 Phoenix Clippers 104, Suns 96 Recap Box

The Big Picture:

The Clippers are riding a season long seven game winning streak, but they have absolutely no reason to be overconfident after a very shaky performance against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night. Hopefully that Hawks game is the best of both worlds -- the wake up call they needed to realize they can't just show up at the arena and expect to win, without actually taking the hit in the standings. The close call against the Hawks isn't the only reason tonight's game should have their attention -- it also happens to come against the Phoenix Suns, who handed them their worst home defeat of the season just before the new year. So although the Clippers got a modicum of revenge for that loss when they won in Phoenix last week, don't believe for a moment that they've forgotten the embarrassment they suffered at the hands of the Suns in their own building. If you doubt me, bear in mind what the Clippers did the Lakers in the next two games after suffering a bad loss. The Suns are certainly not the Lakers, and Phoenix has given the Clippers trouble in both meetings this season -- honestly, if Matt Barnes doesn't go super nova in the third quarter last week, the Suns are probably up 2-0 on the Clippers in the season series. The Clippers won't want to depend on Barnes tonight -- they'll need big games from their stars, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, especially since Jamal Crawford reaggravated his strained calf muscle on Saturday night and is planning to take this game off, leaving the Clippers without two of their leading scorers (Crawford and the still injured J.J. Redick).

The Antagonist:

The Suns valiant season in which they went from everyone's pick for worst team in the Western Conference to in the thick of the playoff race may ultimately end up falling short of the postseason prize, which would be a shame. The Grizzlies have now tied the Suns for the eighth best record, and there's only room for eight at the dance. A quick glance at the Suns remaining schedule -- 13 of their final 20 games are on the road, the most remaining road games of any team in the West -- would suggest that the smarter money is on other teams to survive the final cut. Still, this team has surprised everyone just to be where they are, and they may have some surprises left yet. They'll get Eric Bledsoe back any moment now, and that could certainly give them a boost for their final push. The Suns are a great story, a fun team, an exciting team -- and they're pretty darn good. Goran Dragic is the best player in the West this season who didn't make the All Star team, and Gerald Green has finally, almost out of nowhere, harnessed his massive talent and become a solid NBA player. At any rate, even if this is not their season, the Suns are loaded with talent and have more draft pick and trade assets than any other team in the NBA -- we thought the Warriors were going to be the LAC's closest Pacific Division rival for the foreseeable future, but in fact it may be the Suns who will present the biggest challenge.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. The Suns are a top ten offensive team and slightly better than average on defense, as measured by points scored/allowed per 100 possessions. I did not see that coming. The Clippers are back in the top 10 in defensive efficiency after a great defensive performance against the Pelicans on Saturday.
  • Crawford and Redick. The fly in the Clippers ointment at present is their ongoing injury problem. Jamal Crawford returned to action against the Hawks after missing three games, but played only nine minutes before his strained calf tightened up again -- he plans to take at least this game off to allow himself to heal more. Meanwhile J.J. Redick has missed five weeks with his current bulging disc problem, and has only played in 30 of the Clippers' 64 games this season. It's tough to remember how great Chris Paul and Redick looked together in the backcourt, it's been so long since we've seen it. They haven't played together since November! Jared Dudley is currently experiencing his own problem with back spasms and is a game time decision tonight. The mantra all along has been, "As long as we're healthy for the postseason." But in Redick's case, five weeks out of action with five weeks left in the season and no timetable, it becomes a major concern. For what it's worth, I still think this has a lot to do with caution -- I believe that Redick will play in the playoffs, but whether his back is right by then is another question.
  • Do the Suns have the Clippers number? Although the season series is tied 1-1, the Clippers have only won two quarters out of eight against the Suns this season -- and one of those was a garbage time fourth after the December game was already far out of reach. Basically, the Clippers had one HUGE quarter in Phoenix last week where Matt Barnes hit five three pointers and didn't miss a shot, and aside from that, the Suns have dominated this series. I don't know that there's a good reason for this -- the Suns are good, but the Clippers certainly should be better. At any rate, this team has played the Clippers as well as or better than any other team this season, so this game is certainly not to be taken lightly.
  • Thank you AGAIN Lakers. The Lakers did the Clippers another favor yesterday. The other LA team has now beaten the Trail Blazers and the Thunder in a matter of a week,each time just before the Clippers played the Suns. All of a sudden, the two seed appears to be back in play for the Clippers, but it's OKC that is vulnerable, not the Spurs. Go figure.
  • Key matchups. Phoenix tried to defend Blake Griffin with P.J. Tucker for long stretches last week, and it seemed to work in the first half, but finally in the third quarter Blake began to overpower the smaller Tucker as you would expect he might. But the real fireworks will be at the point guard, where Chris Paul and Goran Dragic and are among the best and most competitive players at their position in the league. These guys were getting on each others nerves last week, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if some animosities flare up tonight.
  • Suns and Warriors. The Clippers have two straight home games against the Suns and the Warriors, their immediate division rivals and two teams that have given them trouble this season. They also happen to be the only two opponents with winning records that the Clippers face in their next eight games, and they don't play a road game against a team over .500 until March 27th in Dallas. Too top it all off, both the Suns and the Warriors will arrive at STAPLES Center on the second night of a back-to-back. The schedule was far from kind to the Clippers earlier this season, but right now they're getting all the breaks.
  • The Bledsoe trade. When you look at the return that Phoenix got on this trade, you can't help but think about whether the Clippers could have gotten more for Eric Bledsoe. But at the same time, the Clippers got a lot as well (they obviously miss J.J. Redick) and there was little hope of being able to retain Bledsoe in free agency at any rate. The fact that Phoenix was able to trade Caron Butler (getting out of his salary) and that Milwaukee has now released Butler makes the deal Phoenix made look even better.
  • Bledsoe out. The bad news for the Suns is that Bledsoe has been injured most of the season so far. He recently practiced with the team for the first time since meniscus surgery and should be back very soon. There was talk at one point that he might be back for this game, but it's sounding as if he'll wait at least one more.
  • Why the Suns surprised everyone. The conventional wisdom is usually pretty accurate in the NBA. There aren't usually a lot of surprises. Teams may be a little better or a little worse than one expects, but what the Suns have done, going from a team every expected to be near the top of the Tank Rank to a team fighting for a playoff spot in the deepest Western Conference in memory is essentially unprecedented. So how did it happen? It's actually pretty simple at one level -- everyone on the Suns is outperforming their career numbers, and most are having career best seasons. All nine of their top players by minutes played are over their career PERs this season; eight of the nine are averaging career highs in minutes played; and seven of those eight are averaging career high PERs. The only one who is not averaging a career high in either minutes or PER is Channing Frye, who missed all of last season after heart surgery, so he's had his own resurrection. When every member of a roster plays more minutes than they have in their career, and produces more with those minutes than they have in their career, well, that team will be better than expected. See? Simple.
  • Wake Forest point guards. They've been doing a pretty good job recruiting point guards to Wake Forest in the past decade or so I guess. Of course there's CP3, the best point guard in the NBA, who was in Winston-Salem from for two seasons from 2003 to 2005. Jeff Teague, who the Clippers faced with the Hawks on Saturday, was a Demon Deacon from 2007 to 2009. And Ish Smith, currently playing big minutes for Phoenix in the absence of Eric Bledsoe, played the point for Wake for a season after Teague left. Who's next" Delaney Rudd?
  • Hornacek. It's worth asking how much effect new Suns coach Jeff Hornacek has had on all of these career years. Unfortunately it's impossible to disentangle the impact of the coach from the ongoing development of players. Of the nine Suns who stepped up their game, four have fewer than four years in the league, so some amount of improvement might be expected as a part of the normal progression. But three more are reclamation projects (P.J. Tucker, Gerald Green and Ish Smith) and for all of them, Hornacek must be given credit for at the least putting them into a situation where they have thrived.
  • More on Hornacek. Hornacek was a member of the late 80's Suns teams while I was living in Phoenix, and I absolutely loved those teams. Kevin Johnson was clearly my favorite Phoenix player, but Hornacek was right there with Tom Chambers and Eddie Johnson and Dan Majerle for me. Hornacek was the centerpiece of the trade that brought Charles Barkley to the Suns, and that was more or less the day that I changed my allegiance from the Suns to the Clippers. (The fact that I had moved back to L.A. in the interim was certainly a factor.) A former assistant coach in Utah under Ty Corbin (another key member of those 80s Suns teams), Hornacek has got to be considered the odds-on favorite for NBA Coach of the Year.
  • Dragic. By far the most striking example of Suns having career years is Goran Dragic. Dragic has accomplished the rare feat of increasing the number of shots he takes per 36 minutes, while at the same time significantly improving his shooting percentages across the board. Dragic probably should have made the All Star Game this season -- if the team had been chosen a bit later in the year, he no doubt would have, as he's been tracking upward all season. Dragic had shown flashes of brilliance in his first five seasons in the league, but nothing to indicate he could be this guy consistently. How much has Dragic outperformed expectations? Well, consider that Dragic was on the Rockets in 2012, and Houston opted to let him leave for free agency so that they could sign Jeremy Lin instead. Now imagine a Rockets team with Dragic, Harden, Parsons and Howard.
  • The Morris twins. Back in the day, the Suns reunited twins Tom and Dick Van Arsdale in Phoenix for a season. In recent years, the team has made a habit of employing the less talented half of many NBA brother tandems, including Robin Lopez, Jaron Collins and Blake's big brother Taylor Griffin. At the trade deadline in 2013, they acquired Marcus Morris from Houston to pair him with his twin bother Markieff. I have no idea how to tell them apart other than jersey number. Marcus (15) is the more prolific three point shooter, so hopefully Blake and the other defenders know to stay close to number 15 on the perimeter.
  • Three point shooting. The Clippers three point shooting is on a surprising uptick, in spite of the fact that their three best shooters coming into the season are all out, and their best shooter has been out for awhile. Nonetheless, during the seven game winning streak, the Clippers are 73-175 from deep, almost 42%. Most of that is owing to the incredible tear Matt Barnes is on, as he's hit 23-48 during the streak. In fact, Barnes is now hitting a higher percentage, while also taking more threes per minute, than Jared Dudley, the supposed specialist. (That is in stark contrast to their career averages of course and is almost certainly not going to last.) Hedo Turkoglu and Reggie Bullock have been red hot from deep in limited minutes recently as well. If Doc ever gets Redick back, his season-long floor stretching vision may finally come to fruition.
  • Stretch fours. The Clippers lead the NBA in three point defense (a huge turnaround from last season) and the Suns rely on the three ball quite a bit (fourth in the NBA in threes made per game), so how the Clippers defend the three point line will be key. However, the Suns threes aren't really coming from the traditional sources. Channing Frye and Marcus (15) Morris are two of their best and most willing three point shooters, so the Clipper bigs are going to have to stay close to those guys on the perimeter.
  • Plumlee Starting: According to Dan Woike of the OCRegister, the Suns will start 25-year-old center Miles Plumlee tonight.  Plumlee did not play last week when these teams faced off, and is averaging 8.5 points and 8.2 rebounds a game in 25.8 minutes a night this season.  This will be his 60th start of the season for the Suns.  -Note by Lucas Hann, 6:26 PM 3/10/14
  • Connections. Matt Barnes played for the Suns for one season in 08-09. Hedo Turkoglu played 25 games with the Suns back in 2010 before Phoenix traded him back to Orlando. Clippers associate head coach Alvin Gentry was the head coach in Phoenix for portions of five seasons before being fired last year. Before that he was the Clippers head coach. And of course there's the Dudley-Bledsoe thing. Sasha Vujacic is no longer with the Clippers after having a 10 day contract earlier in the season, which is too bad because fellow-Slovenians Vujacic and Dragic are bitter rivals and it is always entertaining when they get on the court together.
  • Get the Phoenix perspective at Bright Side of the Sun.
  • Shakespearean reference:
    Sonnet XXXV (35)
    No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
    Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud;
    Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
    And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
    All men make faults, and even I in this,
    Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
    Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
    Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;
    For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense-
    Thy adverse party is thy advocate-
    And 'gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
    Such civil war is in my love and hate
    .   That I an accessary needs must be
    .   To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.
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