The Back Story:
The Big Picture:
The Clippers season is in danger of slipping away. They have yet to beat a team with a winning record on the road, and have only one such win at home. Their record to this point has therefore been propped up by lots of early season games against bad teams, but a loss in Phoenix would drop them to 5 games below .500, with Boston and Portland up next. The team hasn't played terribly on this trip - nor have they played well enough to beat the good teams. The defense and the bench in particular have been suspect, and both will have to be better to get a win against a tough Phoenix team. The good news is that Chris Kaman has been in top form on offense, and certainly Phoenix does not seem to have a low post defender who can stop him. Kaman scored 22 on 10 for 17 shooting in the first meeting of the season between these teams, and a career high 29 on Tuesday in Houston. He has scored 20 or more in six consecutive games and has gotten his field goal percentage back up over 50% after dipping well into the 40s during his slump. The Suns will no doubt double team him from the very beginning tonight. If that is the case, Eric Gordon spotting up and Al Thornton slashing to the basket will be key elements of the Clippers attack. LA will also try to exploit Steve Nash on offense. Whichever guard Nash defends, whether it's Baron Davis or Gordon, will go into the post. In the first meeting, the Suns put Nash on Gordon, and the Clippers got a little too tunnel-visioned on the matchup at times. The key is to go to it if it's there, but not to become obsessed with it.
Until earlier this week, the Suns had the only undefeated home record in the NBA. Then Cleveland beat them on Monday, and Oklahoma City beat them on Wednesday - both games in Phoenix. So after starting the season 10-0 in Phoenix, they've now lost two straight. In fact, after beginning the season 14-3, the Suns are 4-8 in December. That slide is in large part a function of a brutal December schedule, but it's also possible that the Suns are beginning to fade a bit. Leandro Barbosa has missed all 12 December games, but lucky Clippers, he may be back for this one. Phoenix continues to have depth issues, so getting Barbosa back will be a major bonus for them. As for the rest of the team, well they have two certain all stars in Amare Stoudemire and Steve Nash, an age-defying Grant Hill at the three, Jason Richardson at the shooting guard and Channing Frye playing the dreaded stretch four. They have the best offense in the NBA in terms of efficiency, partly because they are making over 42% of their three pointers this season. Then again, they have the third worst defense in the league. In the first meeting of the season between these two teams, the Clippers played well enough to win, and had a big lead in the fourth quarter. But Nash took over and carried the Suns to a victory on a last second scoop shot in the lane.
- Defending the three ball. It seems like we keep saying it, but the Clippers have got to defend the three tonight. Houston has actually taken a few more threes this season than the Suns - but Houston only makes 33.7% of their threes. The Suns make 42.1%. Frye is making almost 45%, Nash is over 43%, Jared Dudley is over 48%, and the list goes on and on. Marcus Camby on Frye is a particularly important matchup. Camby hates staying home on these jump shooting power forwards, and did a terrible time defending David Andersen and Luis Scola on Tuesday, and they weren't even drifting out to the arc. Marcus is going to have to make a conscious effort to stay home on Frye. But it's easier said than done.
- Nash. Steve Nash is having an absolutely amazing season. People talk about the '180 shooter' - the player who shoots 50% from the field, 40% from three and 90% from the line. Well, Nash is actually over 53% from the field, over 43% from three, and over 93% from the line this season - so he's really a '190 shooter'. He's also leading the league in assists, and frankly he's the reason that the Suns are the most efficient offense in the league.
- Going small. If MDsr isn't liking the Camby-Frye matchup, he could go small and bring in Rasual Butler, and put Thornton on Frye. I wouldn't be surprised to see this lineup quite a bit tonight.
- Baron Davis. Baron has played well lately, and the Clippers could certainly use a big game from him tonight against his buddies Nash and Richardson. Baron has the size to abuse Nash in the post, and the quickness to get by Richardson. And it's not like there's a lot of shot blocking waiting at the rim when he beats his man. The Suns are 24th in the league in blocks per game. (The Clippers by the way are first in the league in that category.)
- Kaman vs. Stoudemire. I'm assuming this will be the matchup, and it's conceivable these could be the centers representing the Western Conference in the All Star game. Stoudemire is leading the vote for centers, and is a near lock to be the starter by simple virtue of being the one name on the list of centers in the West - never mind that he's not really a center. Surprisingly, Kaman takes almost three more shots per game than Stoudemire - which is probably very annoying to Amare. Amare has never been a great defender, and Kaman should have a good game if he sees single coverage. Then again on the other end, Stoudemire will have his way with Kaman as well.
- Defense. The Suns can score, we know that. And they'll let their opponent score some as well. But the Clippers probably can't just out score them. They are going to have to find a way to get key stops if they want to win this game and salvage a 3-3 road trip. Of course, they'd already have 3 wins on this trip if they could have defended the Chris Duhon/David Lee pick and roll in New York. Guess what? The Nash/Stoudemire pick and roll is better. A lot better. They'd better figure it out quick.
- Christmas Day game. When ESPN decided to put this game on Christmas Day, they were no doubt expecting Blake Griffin to be a major draw, and the leading candidate for rookie of the year. Unfortunately for them and us, Griffin is still out, over 8 weeks after the season began. Instead, ESPN gets a Clippers team that is fast fading from the playoff race, as Griffin sits on the sideline for at least another three weeks.
By Grapthar's hammer, by the suns of Worvan, you shall be avenged!
- Get the Suns perspective at Bright Side of the Sun.