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Clippers-Suns preview: Stay focused

The Clippers have won four straight and the Suns have lost five straight but the Suns have won 17 of the last 20 meetings between the two teams.

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
2012/2013 NBA Regular Season

December 8th, 2012, 12:30 PM
Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM
Buy Clippers Tickets
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Goran Dragic
Willie Green SG Shannon Brown
Caron Butler SF Michael Beasley?
Blake Griffin PF Markieff Morris
DeAndre Jordan C Marcin Gortat
Advanced Stats through games of Dec. 7
92.4 (14th of 30) Pace 92.8 (9th of 30)
109.3 (4th of 30) ORtg 104.2 (16th of 30)
102.1 (7th of 30) DRtg 109.0 (29th of 30)
Chauncey Billups (ankle) out
Channing Frye (enlarged heart) out
Grant Hill (knee) out
P.J. Tucker (knee) GTD
Trey Thompkins (knee) out
Jermaine O'Neal (eye) day to day

The Back Story:

First meeting of the regular season. The Suns won the season series last season three games to one.

The Big Picture:

The Clippers are on a four game winning streak, with two blow out wins at home and a road win over Utah in between in their last three. The team has swung back and forth between looking almost unbeatable to looking completely lost out there. They've obviously been on the upswing lately, so let's hope they stay there. However, the is EXACTLY the kind of game they have been prone to lose in recent history. They lost three of four to the Suns last season, with the final loss coming as they were battling for home court advantage in the final week of the regular season. They've also lost home games to Cleveland and New Orleans this season, two of only six teams in the league with a worse record than the Suns. The Clippers have lacked energy this season when they have not been on national television, so this local only game could be a problem in that area as well. Finally, it's a day game, which can sometimes present issues in the energy department. Also, after returning for three games, Chauncey Billups is back out for a couple weeks with tendinitis in his ankle. So, those are all the reasons the Clippers could be in trouble this game. On the other side of the coin, the Suns aren't nearly as good as the Clippers, so advantage they've got that going for them.

The Antagonist:

The Suns have lost five straight and are a bit of a mess right now. With only five players back from last season's team (not including Channing Frye who is out for the year after a preseason exam revealed an enlarged heart) these are not the same Suns we're used to seeing -- not by a long shot. Steve Nash is a Laker, Grant Hill is a Clipper, Robin Lopez is a Hornet and there are a lot of new faces wearing orange. The Suns rebuild on the fly was one of those things that seems like it almost could work -- until you realize that it has pretty much no hope of working. They signed Goran Dragic, Luis Scola and Michael Beasley in the offseason and traded for Wesley Johnson. All of those players have either had some success in the NBA or arrived with a lot of promise -- but all of them are pretty flawed as well. Everything would have had to break exactly right for the Suns this season for it all to fit together and work, and instead most everything has broken exactly wrong. Beasley has been terrible and Johnson has been worse. Dragic and Scola have been pretty good, but center Marcin Gortat has had a big drop off in his productivity in the absence of Nash (not the first time that has happened to a former teammate of Nash's). Coming in on that five game losing streak, there's talk that the Suns may shake up their starting lineup against the Clippers tonight and bench Beasley.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. The Clippers' defensive efficiency numbers continue to improve. The improved defense of the Clippers is clearly the biggest difference between this year's team and last year's team. The Suns on the other hand are 29th in the league in defensive efficiency. Then again the Clippers have lost at home this season to the teams ranked currently 27th and 30th in defensive efficiency, so this is not necessarily a good thing.
  • Inverted Pacific Division. For a decade or more, the Pacific Division always featured the Lakers and the Suns and to a lesser extent the Kings at the top and going to the playoffs every year, with the Clippers and the Warriors bringing up the rear and heading to the lottery. It's too early to count anyway out (and certainly not the Lakers) but right now the Division standings are almost completely upside down from what we're used to. The Clippers lead the division at 12-6, with the Warriors in hot pursuit at 12-7 (so the Clippers need this win to maintain sole possession of first). Meanwhile the Lakers, Suns and Kings are all below .500. If I recall correctly, last season was the first time -- EVER -- that the Clippers actually finished ahead of the Suns in the division standings. Amazing.
  • Different Suns team. The good news for the Clippers is that neither Griffin nor Paul has to worry about being defended by Hill, and Griffin doesn't have to worry about being flagrant fouled by Robin Lopez, and the Clippers in general don't have to worry about being picked apart by Nash.
  • Clippers without Billups. Chauncey Billups was back in the Clippers lineup for three games after recovering from Achilles surgery before succumbing to peroneal tendinitis in his ankle. He's been shut down for a couple of weeks at least. As we've discussed, the Clippers have a very soft schedule for the next few weeks, and the team is incredibly deep this season. So there's absolutely no incentive to risk Billups' health at this point in the season. As Chris Paul said recently: "I need Chauncey in April, not in December."
  • Connections. Grant Hill (who has yet to play a game as a Clipper) rejuvenated his career over the course of five seasons in Phoenix. Matt Barnes was Hill's teammate on the Suns for one season as well. Sebastian Telfair of the Suns was a Clipper for a half a season. Suns head coach Alvin Gentry was the Clippers head coach a decade ago, and Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro ended his playing career in Phoenix and then transitioned into a front office job there before moving to the bench.
  • Department of understatement. Sarah McLellan in her brief preview about today's game at had this to say: "Chris Paul has been steady in the backcourt, contributing 16 points and 9.5 assists per game." Yup. He's been steady. Solid. He's a good, steady point guard. He's doing a good job for the Clippers. I say we try and hang onto him, what do you guys think?
  • P.J. Tucker. If Beasley does indeed get benched at small forward, it could be for P.J. Tucker. Tucker was an NBA rookie in 2006 with the Toronto Raptors -- six years later he's in his second season in the NBA at the age of 27. He spent the five years in between playing in various international leagues -- Israel, Ukraine, Greece, Germany, Italy, Puerto Rico. Off the top of my head I can only think of one player who had a longer break between shots in the NBA -- Anthony Parker was out of the league for six years before making it back -- but I'm sure there are other examples. As it happens, Tucker strained his MCL in the Suns loss to Dallas on Thursday and is day-to-day for this game.
  • Pick and roll. The Suns will run a ton of pick and roll today with Dragic and Gortat. The Clippers have been better defending the pick and roll this season, but will need to be ready for it. If DeAndre Jordan struggles on defense you can probably expect Vinny Del Negro to use an early hook and get Lamar Odom in the game. This might even be a day that we see Ryan Hollins again, as VDN seems to like his PnR defense.
  • Jordan on defense. This game will present DeAndre Jordan with several different defensive challenges depending on who the Suns run out there. If it's Gortat, he'll have to defend the Gortat-Dragic pick and roll. If he ends up on Scola, he'll have to deal with the bizarre array of post moves (fakes, pivots, spins, flips, scoops and other things that defy description) that the crafty Argentine will throw at him while also staying up on his face up jumper. If he has to check Morris, he'll have to pursue him out to the three point line where the stretch four is shooting 38% this season. It's going to be a good challenge for DJ who needs to stay disciplined and remember the scouting report for all of these guys.
  • Griffin. Blake Griffin seems to be breaking out. He's had a relatively quiet start to the season, but he's been terrific in the last two games, with 49 points, 24 rebounds and 6 assists while making two-thirds of his field goals. Scola certainly can't guard him and I doubt that second year man Morris can, so I would not be surprised if Blake has a big game today.
  • Revenge. The Suns were one of only two teams to beat the Clippers three times last season (Minnesota was the other). In fact, the Suns have really had the Clippers number in recent years, having won 17 of the last 20 meetings. Even after the Suns ceased being an elite team they've still been beating the Clippers. That needs to stop.
  • Beasley in college. Here's a little statistical information on Michael Beasley that will blow your mind. Beasley and Griffin were freshman in the Big 12 together in 07-08. Had Griffin declared for the draft he would almost certainly have been picked behind Beasley -- there was no debate at the time as to who the better player was. Obviously Beasley is a terrific scorer, but during their freshman season in college he also had more than 100 rebounds more than Griffin: they both played 33 games during which Beasley had 408 rebounds to just 301 for Griffin. This to me is the single biggest mystery about Beasley -- I was fairly convinced that he was going to be a great pro because he was a great rebounder in college and in general two things are true about rebounding: (1) it translates from college to the pros and (2) it indicates a high motor since rebounding is mostly about hard work. Instead Beasley has been a very mediocre rebounder in the NBA and his motor is a big part of why he can't stick anywhere.
  • Beasley in Phoenix. If Beasley was not very particularly good in Miami or Minnesota, he's been absolutely dreadful in Phoenix. Basically, he's a high volume shooter who can't shoot. He's shooting just 37% from the field and 27% from behind the arc. He's also averaging a career low in rebounding. Yet despite these struggles his usage rates remains above 25, which is very high. Of course, Beasley had a 27 point outburst against the Clippers last season while playing for the Timberwolves, so you never know.
  • Lottery busts. I think it's tempting for NBA GM's, especially before they have come to grips with the reality of having a very bad team, to take a chance on a guy who was a high draft pick but has never panned out in the NBA. I guess the thinking is that he was once very highly regarded, so maybe he can still reach that potential. Phoenix picked up two of the more spectacular lottery busts of recent memory this summer in Beasley (drafted second in 2008) and Wesley Johnson (drafted fourth in 2010). It turns out, usually when the team that drafted the player gives up on them, there was a good reason. Chauncey Billups and Joe Johnson are a couple of exceptions, high draft picks that took awhile to establish themselves in the pros but eventually became stars. At any rate, I hear that Greg Oden wants to play in the NBA again. Maybe Phoenix can get him. Or Nikoloz Tskitissadflajfksili -- he's still out there somewhere and he's still only 29.
  • Get the Phoenix perspective at Bright Side of the Sun.
  • Lyrical reference:

    This Mess We're In -- P.J. Harvey

    Can you hear them?
    The helicopters?
    I'm in New York
    No need for words now
    We sit in silence
    You look me
    In the eye directly
    You met me
    I think it's Wednesday
    The evening
    The mess we're in and

    The city sun sets over me

    Well this is a bit of serendipity. As you know, I'm a huge fan of Radiohead. While looking for a lyric to feature for this preview, I came across this little gem of a song from P.J. Harvey, a fine singer/songwriter in her own right who I've never fully embraced for some reason. Anyway, turns out Radiohead front man Thom Yorke sang on several songs from her 2000 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, including taking the lead here. In fact, I don't how the writing credits were divvied up on the song, but it almost had to be a collaboration -- there's a distinctive Yorke vibe happening here that goes way beyond just the vocals. At any rate, a happy musical discovery for me while thinking about basketball. Gonna have to get the album now.