Clippers-Suns preview: End of the road

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers five game road trip comes to a conclusion tonight in Phoenix, after which the team will have a five game home stand with only six games left in the season.

2013/2014 NBA Regular Season
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53-22

44-30
April 2nd, 2014, 7:00 PM
US Airways Center
Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Win-Loss Breakdown
21-9 East 20-10
32-13 West 24-20
31-5 Home 25-13
22-17 Road 19-17
23-14 .500+ 14-21
30-8 .500- 30-9
8-2 L10 8-2
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Goran Dragic
Darren Collison SG Eric Bledsoe
Matt Barnes SF P.J. Tucker
Jared Dudley PF Channing Frye
DeAndre Jordan C Miles Plumlee
Advanced Stats
98.33 (7th of 30) Pace 98.33 (6th of 30)
109.3 (2nd of 30) ORtg 107.0 (8th of 30)
101.5 (6th of 30) DRtg 103.7 (13th of 30)
Injuries/Other
J.J. Redick (bulging disc) out
Emeka Okafor (neck surgery) out
Jamal Crawford (strained calf) GTD
Leandro Barbosa (broken hand) out
Blake Griffin (back spasms) GTD

Danny Granger (hamstring) out

The Back Story (Clippers lead the season series, 2-1):

Date Venue Final

12/30/13 Los Angeles Suns 107, Clippers 88 Recap Box
03/04/14 Phoenix Clippers 104, Suns 96 Recap Box
03/10/14 Los Angeles Clippers 112, Suns 105 Recap Box

The Big Picture:

The Clippers are 3-1 on their five game road trip as they make their final stop in Phoenix tonight. And they'd be 4-0 if Chris Paul could have made a shot or two in his old home of New Orleans. The last win came without three of their top four scorers and a fourth key rotation player, which could very well be the situation again tonight. Doc Rivers appears to be in no mood to take any chances with the health of Blake Griffin (back spasms) or Jamal Crawford (strained Achilles) just as he's been super cautious with J.J. Redick's bulging disc. It's all about the postseason for Rivers, and he's not going to risk the longer term physical health of these guys for an extra win here and there -- no matter how small the risk. Not to mention that the Clippers have to play again tomorrow back in L.A. If anything, Doc may ask Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan and Darren Collison to play big minutes in Phoenix, assuming that he can give them extra rest Thursday against Dallas by bringing back the likes of Griffin and Crawford. We'll see. In the meantime, the Clippers remain dangerous even with so many weapons sidelined, mostly because Paul is playing as well as he has all season. He hasn't needed to carry the team on his back very much this season, particularly since his own injury that came shortly after the emergence of the improved Griffin. But lo and behold, although Paul hasn't had to carry the team, it turns out he still can when the need arises.

The Antagonist:

The last time we saw the Suns we were about ready to write them off in the Western Conference playoff race. They'd been caught by the Grizzlies in the standings with 20 games left, and their remaining schedule coupled with the general feeling that they'd been overachieving all season seemed to indicate that they'd eventually fade. Well, eventually has not yet arrived. Almost four weeks later, the Suns and Grizzlies are still tied, and currently it's the Mavs, a half game back of them, who are the odd team out in the playoff race. The Suns still have the most difficult remaining schedule of the three, so they still may wind up as the best lottery team in memory, but they're clearly not going down without a fight (Sunday's loss to the Lakers notwithstanding). With all the young talent on this roster, what appears to be a great coach in Jeff Hornacek, and a boatload of assets, the Suns could be the Clippers' biggest Pacific Division threat in the coming years. Postseason or not, it's been a great season in Phoenix.

The Subplots

  • The Questionable Blogger. We haven't done one of these for a while, so hopefully you're all ready for a new installment of the Questionable Blogger. I got a chance to ask Dave King of Bright Side of the Sun some questions about Phoenix, and I also answered some of his questions.
  • Podcast. I also appeared on the Bright Side of the Sun podcast for this game, with host Kris Habbas.
  • 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.
  • Pacific Division title. The Clippers won the first division title in franchise history last season and are poised to win for the second season in a row. A win tonight in Phoenix, combined with a Golden State loss in San Antonio, would clinch the Pacific Division for LA. Even if it doesn't happen tonight, it's obviously going to happen. It's worth remembering that when Chris Paul was hurt back in January, a lot of people were ready to hand the Pacific to the Warriors, but it didn't turn out quite that way.
  • P.J. and Blake. Blake Griffin may or may not play in this game. If he does, he'll be defended by the Suns P.J. Tucker, and it would be their first encounter since an altercation in the fourth quarter of the last game. The two got tangled up fighting for rebounding position and Griffin fell on top of Tucker, which Tucker did not appreciate. What happened next is open to debate -- did Tucker throw an elbow, did he throw a punch, was he just trying to get Griffin off of him? Regardless, the officials tossed him and the NBA suspended him for a game. So if Griffin does play, keep an eye on that matchup.
  • Mavs loss. The Suns need to write a nice thank you note to Steph Curry, who beat the Dallas Mavericks last night with a buzzer-beating jumper in overtime. It was in fact the second time this season that a Curry jumper has downed the Mavs in the final seconds, and if the Suns make the playoffs at the expense of Dallas, those games will almost certainly be the difference.
  • What happened Sunday? Phoenix lost to the Lakers on Sunday in a game they really, really needed to win. Riding a six game winning streak and facing a 25-win Lakers team with nine healthy bodies including more than a few on the fringes of the league, the Suns laid an egg, trailing by as many as 26 in the second half. That will be the loss that haunts them if they miss the playoffs by a game.
  • Jared Dudley, stretch four. Former Sun Jared Dudley has certainly been a disappointment for the Clippers this season, but don't count him out yet. Given the starting spot at the three for the first half of the season, Dudley has shot well below his career average from beyond the three point arc, and without that consistent deep threat he was not the player the Clippers thought they were getting. But after falling completely out of Doc Rivers rotation for a time, Dudley was called up Monday to start in place of Blake Griffin at the four, an assignment that brought with it the responsibility of defending Kevin Love. Dudley responded with 16 points, the most he's scored since the second week in January, and even managed to keep the Love at least somewhat in check. If Griffin sits out again tonight as I suspect he will, Dudley will almost certainly get the nod again, and he should be very effective against the collection of stretch fours the Suns like to play like Channing Frye and Marcus Morris. Dudley may not have been the glue guy starter we had hoped for at the three, but he's a very good guy to have around on the depth chart.
  • Davis in the doghouse. Dudley's resurgence has come partially at the expense of Glen Big Baby Davis, who should have featured prominently in Griffin's absence on Monday but only logged four minutes. The absence of Nikola Pekovic had something to do with that, but Davis is clearly a bit on the outs right now. Saturday night in Houston he objected to being replaced by Ryan Hollins, which earned him an early trip to the locker room when Rivers decided he didn't want to listen to a Big Baby whining. A shout out to RyHo, by the way, who has been productive in his recent appearances. I assume that Davis will eventually regain the minutes that Hollins is currently taking, but Rivers isn't going to just give them to him -- he's going to have to earn them.
  • Road record. The Clippers set a franchise-record with 24 road wins last season. When they lost in Memphis just after the All Star break, they dropped to 14-15 on the road and just breaking even seemed like a lot to ask. But they've gone 8-2 on the road since, turning their fortunes around and with just two road games left, they could actually equal last season's record win total. Success on the road has come mostly in blue uniforms, which the Clippers have worn with far greater frequency in the second half of the season. They did finally lose in the blue unis in New Orleans to start this trip, causing them to switch back to red for the win in Dallas. But they've since returned to the blues for back to back wins in Houston and Minnesota. That Dallas game was the first time in two months that the Clippers voluntarily wore their road reds -- in Utah (a win) and Denver (a loss) in March, they wore red because the home team was in green and blue respectively and the NBA required red for contrast.
  • Nagging injuries. The fly in the Clippers ointment at present is their ongoing injury problem. Redick hasn't played since early February. Granger was sent home after tweaking his hamstring in Dallas. Jamal Crawford missed time with a strained calf, and when he came back his Achilles tightened, probably because he was still favoring the calf. And of course Griffin left the Houston game early with back spasms. None of these are serious injuries. None will require surgery (a possibility for Redick's bulging disc, but an extreme solution to say the least and not one that is currently being considered). But they are all also injuries that can linger, that can impact a player for weeks or even months. The Clippers have as much talent and as deep as roster as any team in the league at this point -- but it won't matter if they can't get healthy.
  • Do the Suns have the Clippers number? Although the Clippers lead the season series 2-1, the Suns have really given the Clippers fits this season. Dave King points out correctly that each of the Clipper wins in the series featured some insanely hot shooting, first from Matt Barnes and then from Blake Griffin. And even when Griffin's ridiculous 14-16 performance in the last meeting gave the Clippers a huge lead, the Suns came storming back to make it close in the fourth quarter. There's something about this team the Clippers don't quite get. They can't contain Dragic, they Morris twins have hurt them, Gerald Green has gone off a couple of times. And now they've got Bledsoe back -- as it happens, the Clippers' two wins came while Bledsoe was injured.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 (second 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.
  • Three point shooting. The Clippers are now 32-1 in games in which they have made at least nine three pointers, and they've made 48 in the four games of this road trip (though the one loss did come against the Pelicans in New Orleans despite 13 threes).
  • 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. (Be sure to read citizen FlyByKnight's excellent piece on Gentry's impact on the Clippers' offense this season.) 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 XXI (21)
    So is it not with me as with that Muse
    Stirr'd by a painted beauty to his verse,
    Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
    And every fair with his fair doth rehearse
    Making a couplement of proud compare,
    With sun and moon, with earth and sea's rich gems,
    With April's first-born flowers, and all things rare
    That heaven's air in this huge rondure hems.
    O' let me, true in love, but truly write,
    And then believe me, my love is as fair
    As any mother's child, though not so bright
    As those gold candles fix'd in heaven's air:
    .   Let them say more than like of hearsay well;
    .   I will not praise that purpose not to sell.
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