There was something eerily unfamiliar about the Suns team running the floor at US Airways Center tonight. These were not the Suns Clippers fans have grown used to seeing over the last several years. Largely because Steve Nash, for the first time since February 23, 2005, was not in the lineup for a game against the Clippers, this time due to the flu.
On that date, the Suns, as it turned out, didn't need Nash or even Amar'e Stoudemire for that matter. With Nash sidelined by a hamstring injury and Stoudemire limited by foul trouble, Leandro Barbosa and Joe Johnson led Phoenix with 22 points apiece as the Suns rolled to a 118-101 win over a 23-30 Clippers team.
Only one of the players from that 2004-05 Suns roster is still with the team: Nash, the long-suffering hero of a franchise that has gone from perennial contender to a shell of its former shelf. Only, tonight, the Suns once again didn't need Nash in a 111-98 victory because, for lack of a better phrase, the Clippers didn't try.
I would have liked to see some kind of attempt at spoiling the Suns' last-ditch postseason push, as a loss tonight, combined with the Grizzlies' win over the Hornets a couple hours earlier, would have eliminated Phoenix from playoff contention. Granted, the Suns still aren't going to make it anyway, not without running the table and having Memphis drop every game the rest of the way - a virtual impossibility. All I'm saying is it would have been nice to deal the knockout punch, but the Clippers instead decided to offer a few lame jabs before calling it an early night.
Yes, they had to go without Chris Kaman, inactive due to a viral illness, but you can't tell me Kaman is harder to replace than Nash, certainly not in this case. The Suns, 0-4 without their starting point guard this season as well as 0-4 in their last four games, were ripe for the taking. But after Vinny Del Negro's post-game talk Wednesday of how he wanted to see which guys "play the right way" in the waning moments of the season, the Clippers looked as disinterested as they have all year.
For a little while, they did appear to care. The Clippers jumped out to a 7-3 lead to start the game, behind a couple outside jumpers by Eric Gordon. (EJ, who has struggled with his shooting recently, turned in a decent performance tonight, finishing with 21 points on 8-for-16 from the field, including 4-for-9 from 3-point range. Even Gordon, though, was swept up in the team-wide malaise, as his game-worst minus-21 would attest.) But the Suns quickly surged back thanks to Grant Hill's 11 first-quarter points, and at the end of 12 minutes, had a 25-23 lead. Hill, by the way, played about 12 years younger than his age (38) tonight, finishing with 19 points in 26 minutes. The Clippers' absent defense will do that for you, and for Zabian Dowdell (a career-high 14 points in 24 minutes).
Then the second quarter rolled around, along with a particularly atrocious stretch that began with 7:52 left in the frame and ended just before halftime. In those seven-plus minutes, the Suns, save for three possessions cut short by turnovers, scored on every trip down the floor. Over that period, they made 11 field goals and went a perfect 3-for-3 from the line. Even on the two series where they missed a shot, the Sun who had missed or another teammate ripped down the offensive rebound and tossed the ball back in the basket. Even more amazing, the Suns did all this without making a single 3-pointer, though that didn't stop them from going on a 23-12 run and taking a double-digit lead into the third quarter.
At least the Clippers showed some semblance of an offense in the first half, because they did just the opposite in the second. Throughout the third quarter, the Clippers settled for contested shots, stopped moving the ball almost entirely and committed silly turnovers on seemingly every other possession. They still weren't rotating on defense, and the Suns took advantage by taking a barrage of wide-open jumpers and, eventually, a 22-point lead with 4:13 left in the frame. By that time, the Clippers offense had already devolved into a monstrosity more befitting a pickup game than a professional contest, questionable pull-up jumpers and errant passes aplenty. This continued into the fourth quarter, but of course, it was already over before then.
And all this time, we got a look at some bizarre lineups. I realize there was little at stake and Del Negro wanted to give his less-used players some extra floor time, but it was an interesting experiment, to say the least. To begin with, Jamario Moon started the game for the first time since he's joined the Clippers. The move paid early dividends when Moon hit a corner three a few minutes into the first quarter, but that would end up being the extent of his contributions (three points and two turnovers in 24 minutes). Not much of an improvement over Ryan Gomes, who came off the bench to go 1-for-5 from the field in nine minutes. I would have liked to see much, much more of Al-Farouq Aminu, who didn't come into the game until the 3:31 mark of the third quarter. Sure, he's a rookie and rookies give coaches headaches, but why not take these last several games to get an extended look at Aminu (six points in 14 minutes)? It's not as if your other options at that position are much better.
There were multiple other seldom-seen rotations used extensively tonight. With Kaman out, DeAndre Jordan in foul trouble and the final outcome decided long before the game was over, I guess it's somewhat understandable that Brian Cook, Craig Smith and Ike Diogu combined to play 33 minutes tonight. But Smith and Diogu on the court at the same time? That's something we should never see, even if it was only for a few minutes. At any rate, tonight's game provided an opportunity to build something to take into next season. The thing is, I don't see how any trend from tonight's game can be turned into a real positive.
What's equally disturbing is just how little the Clippers cared about this one. While any dreams of the postseason have long since been squelched, there's this question: What kind of message does mailing in a game, even in April, send to someone like Blake Griffin? The rookie has evidently been programmed to compete no matter the circumstance (20 points and 13 rebounds in 30 minutes), but he toiled away on an island tonight. If the Clippers don't turn things around over these last two weeks, it's going to get a whole lot lonelier out there.