The Back Story (The Suns lead the season series, 1-0):
|Suns 107, Clippers 88
The Big Picture:
The Clippers suffered their worst home loss of the season in the final game of 2013 when the Suns dominated them in the second quarter on their way to a 19 point win in STAPLES Center. The game looks like an outlier in the context of the rest of the season -- the Clippers have only lost at home five times all year, and three of those were by five points or fewer (they also lost by 10 to San Antonio). If the Clippers came out flat against the Suns in that game, it's hard to imagine the same thing will happen tonight, as the Clippers will certainly have revenge on their minds. Chris Paul was thoroughly outplayed by Goran Dragic in that game, and CP3 does not like being outplayed -- he'll want to prove something tonight. Having played just the one game so far this season, the Suns are the only Western Conference team that the Clippers have yet to defeat. The Clippers have won four straight and this is the only game of their next 11 that is on the road against a team with a winning record -- in other words, a win here positions them for a very nice winning streak that could take them deep into March. The newest Clipper, Danny Granger, should make his debut tonight after being a late scratch on a paperwork error on Saturday. The good news is that Granger has actually been through a practice at this point. Jamal Crawford is unlikely to play in this one as he recovers from a strained calf muscle, so the Clippers will once again be missing their top two shooting guards and two of their top four scorers in Crawford and J.J. Redick (bulging disc). That didn't slow them down against New Orleans on Saturday, and ideally the Clippers will have a similar defensive performance in this game as they continue to improve on that end as the regular season winds down.
The Suns are the surprise team of the West. Unfortunately for them, it still may not be good enough for a playoff spot in such a deep conference. The Suns are just one game ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies, who are once again healthy and playing very well, and they find themselves in a group of four teams, separated by a game and a half, fighting for three playoff spots -- with Minnesota hanging around to steal another spot if more than one team decides to stumble. Even if they don't make the playoffs, it will have been an incredibly successful season for the Suns, all the more because their prized summer acquisition, former Clipper Eric Bledsoe, has missed more games than he's played, and their lottery pick Alex Len has barely played at all. The Suns have defied expectations because they've played a style that suits them under new head coach Jeff Hornacek, and because pretty much the entire roster is having a career year. Bledsoe is back practicing, and he may be able to give them the boost they need to hold on to their playoff spot. If they do make the playoffs, I don't think there's a team out there who wants to see them in the first round -- but then again there won't be any easy first round series in the west.
- 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 back in the top 10 in defensive efficiency after a great defensive performance against the Pelicans on Saturday.
- Thank you Lakers. The Lakers did the Clippers a favor last night, beating the Trail Blazers in Portland. That loss leaves the Blazers just a game ahead of the Clippers in the standings, and a win in Phoenix will move the Clippers back into a virtual tie for third in the Western Conference. Honestly, third is going to happen soon enough with or without a Clippers win tonight -- both Portland and Houston have brutal stretches coming up just as the Clippers schedule is easing. Two weeks from now the Clippers will have a comfortable lead over the Blazers and the Rockets and LA's sights will be fixed firmly on the top two spots.
- Clippers favored. A week ago when I was looking at the upcoming schedule for the Clippers, I wrote that this game against the Suns could be the only game in a string of 14 straight in which the Clippers wouldn't be favored. It turns out the Clippers are favored in this one, thought I'm not sure they should be. At any rate, a win tonight would position the Clippers to go on a very long winning streak -- they've already won four in a row coming into this game and they don't play another road game against a team over .500 until March 27th in Dallas.
- Record against winning teams. The Minnesota Timberwolves have finally gotten back above .500, meaning that the Clippers three wins over the Wolves now look that much better. Only two teams in the NBA have more than 20 wins against teams over .500 -- the Clippers at 21-14 and the Thunder at 23-11. The Suns on the other hand are just 12-18 against teams over .500. They've had some huge wins against the Clippers and the Pacers and others, but they've done most of their damage against losing teams.
- The Bledsoe trade. 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 retain Bledsoe in free agency at any rate. The fact that Phoenix was able to trade Caron Butler (getting out of his salary) and that Milwaukee has now released Butler makes the deal Phoenix made look even better.
- Bledsoe out. The bad news for the Suns is that Bledsoe has been injured most of the season so far. He recently practiced with the team for the first time since meniscus surgery and could be back in the near future for the stretch run.
- Griffin key. Blake Griffin has had some bad games against Phoenix, including back in December when he was 5-15 for and had just five rebounds. One would not expect anyone on the Suns to have much of a chance to defend Griffin, but Channing Frye has done surprisingly well against him over the years. Griffin is going to have to have a big game if the Clippers are going to avenge that December loss tonight.
- Why the Suns surprised everyone. The conventional wisdom is usually pretty accurate in the NBA. There aren't usually a lot of surprises. Teams may be a little better or a little worse than one expects, but what the Suns have done, going from a team every expected to be near the top of the Tank Rank to a team fighting for a playoff spot in the deepest Western Conference in memory is essentially unprecedented. So how did it happen? It's actually pretty simple at one level -- everyone on the Suns is outperforming their career numbers, and most are having career best seasons. All nine of their top players by minutes played are over their career PERs this season; eight of the nine are averaging career highs in minutes played; and seven of those eight are averaging career high PERs. The only one who is not averaging a career high in either minutes or PER is Channing Frye, who missed all of last season after heart surgery, so he's had his own resurrection. When every member of a roster plays more minutes than they have in their career, and produces more with those minutes than they have in their career, well, that team will be better than expected. See? Simple.
- Hornacek. It's worth asking how much effect new Suns coach Jeff Hornacek has had on all of these career years. Unfortunately it's impossible to disentangle the impact of the coach from the ongoing development of players. Of the nine Suns who stepped up their game, four have fewer than four years in the league, so some amount of improvement might be expected as a part of the normal progression. But three more are reclamation projects (P.J. Tucker, Gerald Green and Ish Smith) and for all of them, Hornacek must be given credit for at the least putting them into a situation where they have thrived.
- More on Hornacek. 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 Phoenix player, but Hornacek was right there with Tom Chambers and Eddie Johnson and Dan Majerle for me. 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.) A former assistant coach in Utah under Ty Corbin (another key member of those 80s Suns teams), Hornacek has got to be considered the odds-on favorite for NBA Coach of the Year.
- Dragic. By far the most striking example of Suns having career years is Goran Dragic. Dragic has accomplished the rare feat of increasing the number of shots he takes per 36 minutes, while at the same time significantly improving his shooting percentages across the board. Dragic probably should have made the All Star Game this season -- if the team had been chosen a bit later in the year, he no doubt would have, as he's been tracking upward all season. Dragic had shown flashes of brilliance in his first five seasons in the league, but nothing to indicate he could be this guy consistently. How much has Dragic outperformed expectations? Well, consider that Dragic was on the Rockets in 2012, and Houston opted to let him leave for free agency so that they could sign Jeremy Lin instead. Now imagine a Rockets team with Dragic, Harden, Parsons and Howard.
- Pre-season meeting. In a very strange pre-season game, back when everyone still thought 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.
- 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 in 2013, they acquired Marcus Morris from Houston to pair him with his twin bother Markieff. 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. The Suns have five players making 38% or better from beyond the three point arc. The Clippers, with J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford out, have Darren Collison making .382, and not a lot else by the numbers. (Hedo Turkoglu is above 40%, but he's just 7-17 on the season.) Matt Barnes has been hot lately, Reggie Bullock hit a couple in the last game, maybe Jared Dudley can get hot against his former team and the newly added Danny Granger may help as well. The Clippers are 26-0 when they make nine or more threes, but until Redick and/or Crawford get back, that's not going to happen a lot.
- 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 (fourth 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.
- Connections. Matt Barnes played for the Suns for one season in 08-09. Hedo Turkoglu played 25 games with the Suns back in 2010 before Phoenix traded him back to Orlando. 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. Sasha Vujacic is no longer with the Clippers after having a 10 day contract earlier in the season, which is too bad because fellow-Slovenians Vujacic and Dragic are bitter rivals and it is always entertaining when they get on the court together.
- Get the Phoenix perspective at Bright Side of the Sun.
- Shakespearean reference:
Sonnet CXXX (130)
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
. And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
. As any she belied with false compare.