The Clippers just can't get healthy. Just when it seemed they would finally get an extended look at a fully active roster, another major cog in the lineup went out of commission. This time it was DeAndre Jordan, who, after battling through a viral infection yesterday against the Cavaliers, had been hospitalized overnight with a mild case of pneumonia. With the still-in-playoff-contention Suns presenting the second challenge of a back-to-back, the Clippers would have to go without Jordan's long-armed defense for a full 48 minutes Sunday afternoon.
The question is, how much did the Clippers really miss Jordan in the Suns' 108-99 win? Sure, they could have used his presence in the paint, where the Suns shot 18-for-29, Steve Nash tossing in his patented wrong-footed fall-away jumpers when he wasn't feeding a wide-open Marcin Gortat rolling to the cup. But in a game that was close most of the way before they melted down in the fourth quarter, the Clippers suffered from what can accurately be described as a plain lack of aggressiveness on both ends of the floor. Having Jordan would have helped, but it wouldn't have been enough to completely mask the Clippers' listless defense or mental errors down the stretch.
If you wanted to go off statistics alone, this was a relatively mistake-free contest. The two teams combined for 18 turnovers (10 by the Clippers), as well as 30-36 shooting from the free-throw line (14-for-17 for the Clippers), and largely stayed out of foul trouble until tempers flared and boos rained down from the Staples Center stands near the end of the game. More on that later.
But lack of execution is a mistake in its own right, and the Clippers simply didn't have it today. Blake Griffin (17 points) shot 6-for-18 and grabbed a career-low two rebounds, marking the seventh straight game he has failed to reach double digits on the glass. It didn't help that Griffin had to guard Channing Frye, who floated around the perimeter for most of the afternoon, but a two-rebound performance by someone who reeled off a 27-game double-double streak earlier in the season is still cause for head-scratching. Eric Gordon, who after the game admitted he was "drained" from playing 41 minutes yesterday in returning from injury, struggled to get to the hoop and finished with 10 points on 4-for-11 shooting. Mo Williams' 18-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist line looks a lot better than it really is, considering he scored 11 of his points in the final 6:35, when the Clippers made a desperate but unsuccessful attempt at a comeback. With Jordan out, Kaman started for just the ninth time this season and put up 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he gave back plenty on the other end of the floor, where Gortat largely roamed free for 17 points and 13 rebounds. Randy Foye got off to a fast start, going 4-for-5 and making his first three 3-pointers, but went scoreless in the second half.
And those were the Clippers' top five scorers. Aside from Foye, the bench scored just 17 points, a total that was dwarfed by a 51-point performance by the Suns' second unit. When Steve Nash is being Steve Nash (23 points, 13 assists), Channing Frye is hitting 3-pointers left and right (five long-range bombs on his way to 29 points), and Jared Dudley, Hakim Warrick and Zabian Dowdell combine for 34 points off the bench, you better have an answer. The Clippers didn't, not from their starters and not from anyone else.
Defense is the starting point for this discussion. The Clippers actually outscored the Suns in the paint (42-36), but Phoenix was more efficient both inside and outside (10-for-22 from 3-point range). It all began with the Suns' No. 1 option, the pick-and-roll, as Nash was his usual brilliant self at drawing multiple defenders and threading beautiful bounce passes to teammates who either finished at the rim or kicked it out to an open shooter spotting up behind the arc. With the Clippers defense in constant disarray, Nash, all 180 pounds of him, looked like an older brother picking on a hapless younger sibling. Had the Clippers not shot 9-for-20 from downtown, they would have had an even more difficult time keeping up with an offense they time and again failed to stop.
On the other side of the ball, the Clippers weren't much better. Williams missed six of his first seven shots and looked out of sync with both Gordon and Griffin. Some of that can be attributed to the Clippers' top two scorers having terrible games - though Gordon's tentativeness and Griffin's ineffectiveness were further amplified by the Suns' swarming D - but this is something to keep a close eye on in upcoming weeks. Will Williams eventually mesh with Gordon, with whom he has played only three games, or will he labor to develop any chemistry with his shooting guard? Baron Davis may not have been the easiest person to play with, but he did know when and where to get his teammates the ball. Will Williams be able to do the same, at least to some extent, for Gordon?
And what about Williams and Griffin? I counted a few times when Williams could have attempted a Davis-like lob to Griffin or set him up with a quick pass. But more often than not, Williams pulled the ball out, opting to reset the offense rather than make a pass that might, for him, be deemed too risky. It's a delicate line that Williams will have to tiptoe every game with such tantalizing weapons at his side, but when he's not hitting his own shots (1-for-4 from 3) or orchestrating easy scores, that's a concern.
With all that said, the Clippers still had their chances today. They may not have been able to stop the Suns offense, but their own attack was mostly coordinated save for several breakdowns. The problem was, the biggest breakdowns came in the final period. After entering the fourth quarter with an 81-78 deficit, the Clippers didn't score until the 7:03 mark, when Gordon made probably his first aggressive drive to the hoop all game. But even as the Clippers offense made a timid return, the Suns kept responding with even more baskets of their own. Then with about four minutes left, the following happened:
Griffin, obviously frustrated after having an offensive foul and a personal foul called on him in the span of mere seconds, got the ball after setting a high screen for Williams, and with only Gortat between him and the basket, took off just outside the restricted area and threw down a vicious, one-handed dunk over the Suns big man. The entire building gasped before bursting into stunned celebration - the sequence was eerily reminiscent of the now-famous Mozgov dunk, only Griffin had gone airborne even farther away from the hoop and the ball rattled around the rim a few times before dropping.
Except it didn't count. Even though Gortat had appeared to move slightly just before he was knocked to the ground by the frightening force of Griffin's momentum, head official Steve Javie signaled for a charge. It was Griffin's sixth foul of the game, and he ran downcourt holding the ball in disbelief before angrily tossing it away, drawing a technical that further compounded the Clippers' troubles. The Staples Center crowd booed lustily and continued to do so for the remainder of the game. Had the play stood - and you could argue that it should have - the dunk would have sprung to the top of Griffin's ridiculous highlight list. Even Alvin Gentry agreed.
"That was one hell of a dunk," the Suns coach said after the game. "I don't care if it was a charge. That might be as impressive of a dunk as I have seen in the NBA in 23 years. I think that was the best dunk he's had since he was in the league."
Strong statements by someone who's watched a lot of basketball. But Gentry also was the one enjoying a victory afterward. Even if the dunk had counted, the Clippers still would have faced a 97-86 deficit with just minutes to go. This game was lost early in the fourth quarter, when the Clippers repeatedly failed to put the ball in the hoop as the Suns charged ahead. Had Griffin's monstrous slam stood, I think even he would have left the arena shaking his head in disgust.