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Clippers-Suns preview: The return of Bledsoe

The Phoenix Suns are the surprise team of the NBA this season, and they are led by former Clipper Eric Bledsoe who is having an All Star caliber season in Phoenix.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
2013/2014 NBA Regular Season

December 30th, 2013, 7:30 PM
Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Eric Bledsoe
Jamal Crawford SG Goran Dragic
Jared Dudley SF P.J. Tucker
Blake Griffin PF Channing Frye
DeAndre Jordan C Miles Plumlee
Advanced Stats
98.00 (8th of 30) Pace 97.99 (9th of 30)
106.3 (6th of 30) ORtg 105.6 (9th of 30)
100.3 (7th of 30) DRtg 102.4 (13th of 30)
J.J. Redick (wrist) out
Emeka Okafor (neck) out
Reggie Bullock (ankle) out
Alex Len (ankle) out
Maalik Wayns (meniscus surgery) out

The Back Story (Clippers won the season series last year 3-1):

-- 12/08/12 in Los Angeles | Clippers 117, Suns 99 | RecapBox Score
-- 12/23/12 in Phoenix | Clippers 103, Suns 77 | RecapBox Score
-- 01/24/13 in Phoenix | Suns 93, Clippers 88 | RecapBox Score
-- 04/03/13 in Los Angeles | Clippers 126, Suns 101 | RecapBox Score

The Big Picture:

The Clippers final game of 2013 comes against the surprise team of the season. A win would leave L.A. a  22-11 heading into the new year, a respectable rate of two wins in three games, a bit behind last season's 56 win pace. The Clippers are near the start of a stretch of games where they could improve that mark significantly, with six of the next eight games coming at home, and only two opponents above .600 in their next nine. One of those two is tonight, against the very surprising Suns. Blake Griffin is on one of the best runs of his NBA career, coming off his first 40 point game since his rookie season, and on paper it does not look like the Suns will have anyone who can slow him down (although Channing Frye has done surprisingly well against him in the past). Add to that the additional motivation that Chris Paul will have going against his former backup who is now a burgeoning star in Phoenix, Eric Bledsoe, and it seems like there's a strong possibility that the Clippers two best players could both have big games. If the rest of the team can just hit some three pointers (they were 0-6 in the first half against Utah on Saturday and finished the game 3-14) it would help matters quite a bit.

The Antagonist:

Heading into the season, there was a broad consensus that six of the playoff spots in the Western Conference were spoken for while two were wide open and would be fought over by a long list of teams. Well, sometimes the broad consensus is just wrong. You've got Memphis, considered one of the locks in the preseason, currently sitting in 12th with a losing record. You've got Portland, considered one of the group of teams that might have a chance to make the playoffs, hovering near the top of the standings. And most surprising of all, you've got Phoenix, one of very few teams in the West given no chance at the playoffs heading into the season, currently in sixth place, with the same number of losses as the Clippers. How are the Suns doing this? I have very little clue. There is of course Eric Bledsoe, their leading scorer and most productive player, whom they acquired this summer from the Clippers for their part in the deal that brought J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to L.A. Bledsoe is averaging 18 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds, while shooting a career high 49% from the field. And the Suns shoot the three ball frequently and well. And they play better than expected defense. It doesn't really add up to a team everyone thought would be in the lottery having an 18-11 record, but there they are, fighting for playoff position.

The Subplots

  • The Questionable Blogger. In advance of the game, I asked Dave King of Bright Side of the Sun some questions about his favorite team. Oh yeah, and he asked me some questions as well.
  • 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. The Clippers are trying to break into the elite ranks in both measures, but remain one of very few teams in the top 10 in both categories.
  • Bledsoe. 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 retrain Bledsoe in free agency at any rate. After watching him for three years, we obviously knew the impact Bledsoe could have on games. But he's shooting a career high 49% from the field while taking more shots per minute -- that almost never happens in an increased role. In case you've forgotten the kind of box score wide impact Bledsoe can have, there are eight players in the NBA this season averaging 18 points, five assists and four rebounds per game. They have names like LeBron, CP3, Harden, Westbrook, DWade, Wall and Steph -- and Eric Bledsoe.
  • All Star Game? The coaches who select the All Star reserves tend to like to reward teams that are playing well with All Star selections. If the Suns are still in sixth or seventh when it comes time to choose the reserves, it would be tough to have a team with representation from Phoenix. But while Bledsoe or Dragic is the obvious choice, the West has way too many great guards. Injuries to Russell Westbrook and Kobe Bryant should open up some spots (assuming Kobe doesn't actually return in time for the game and take his starter's spot, depriving a more deserving player), but it's still very tight. There can be at most six guards on the team, and there would seem to be five locks ahead of any Suns guard -- Paul, Parker, Curry, Harden and Lillard. Which might leave room for Bledsoe to rep Phoenix, but at that point he'll be battling bigs like Anthony Davis for the 12th spot on the team.
  • Paul vs. Bledsoe. Chris Paul is a very competitive individual, and he looks for motivation in various places. With his former protege and backup now getting some spotlight of his own in Phoenix, it will be interesting to see these two go head to head. Will Paul have some extra motivation going against his former teammate? If so, it doesn't bode well for the Suns.
  • Pre-season meeting. In a very strange pre-season game, back when everyone still thought that Phoenix was really bad, the Clippers beat the Suns in Phoenix, but it was a struggle. Then again, Blake Griffin didn't play, but the Clippers seemed to be in control in the first half, and the Suns came out in the third quarter and completely shut the Clippers down for about eight minutes. Maybe it was an early sign of how good this Suns team was going to be.
  • Hornacek. Suns rookie coach Jeff Hornacek, a former assistant in Utah, has got to be considered an early front-runner for NBA coach of the year. 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 player on those teams, but Hornacek was right there with Tom Chambers and Eddie Johnson and Dan Majerle for me. (Tyrone Corbin, the head coach in Utah, was a big part of those teams as well.) 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.)
  • 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, they acquired Marcus Morris from Houston to pair him with his twin bother Markieff in Phoenix. 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.
  • Three point shooting. Speaking of Marcus (15) Morris, the Suns have three forwards (Marcus, Frye and Tucker) making better than 40% from three point range. The Clippers have zero players of any kind making that high a percentage. Tucker, who took over as the starting three in Phoenix for Dudley, has made 31-74 from beyond the arc this season. Dudley has made 42-123.
  • 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.
  • Dudley. And speaking of Dudley, the Bledsoe trade is going to really haunt the Clippers if Dudley doesn't start hitting more shots. Remember, Redick was a free agent and the Bucks were going to lose him -- they only got a couple of second round picks in the deal, and only one of those from Phoenix. Aside from that second rounder, these were really two separate trades, with Butler and Bledsoe going to Phoenix for Dudley. Now, the Clippers wanted out of Butler's deal, but ironically, the Suns were able to turn around and trade him to his hometown Bucks. So the Suns wound up getting Bledsoe for Dudley, and didn't even have to eat Butler's salary. Now I'm depressed.
  • Connections. Matt Barnes played for the Suns for one season in 08-09. 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. And of course there's the Dudley-Bledsoe thing. Caron Butler, who was also part of that trade, was later traded to the Bucks.
  • Get the Phoenix perspective at Bright Side of the Sun.
  • Shakespearean reference:

    Sonnet XXXIII (33)

    Full many a glorious morning have I seen
    Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
    Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
    Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
    Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
    With ugly rack on his celestial face,
    And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
    Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
    Even so my sun one early morn did shine
    With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
    But out, alack! he was but one hour mine;
    The region cloud hath mask'd him from me now.
    .   Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
    .   Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth.