Basketball is funny sometimes. It's funny how you can go into halftime with your two best players struggling, with your defense ceding numerous extra possessions and with your offense stalling out with inefficient isolations, and emerge from the lockerroom with the poise to morph from the subdued to the aggressor. It's funny how a team can play excellent basketball on both ends of the floor, flustering Blake Griffin on every touch in the post, forcing Chris Paul into uncharacteristic mistakes out of the pick-and-roll, making the most of second chance opportunities, and have it all slip away in a matter of minutes, in a matter of a few possessions.
After the Clippers came out of the gate strong, establishing a 16-7 lead mid-way through the first quarter, the Suns settled down and began executing their gameplan on both ends of the floor. They contained the Clippers' cornucopia of pick-and-rolls by dropping their bigs back, they made life difficult on Blake Griffin by mixing up their looks and they attacked the backline of the Clipper defense by making the skip pass to the weakside corner and by crashing the boards any chance they got.
The Suns' push in the final moments of the first half gave them an 11-point halftime lead. To this point, the game didn't feel all that different than the first meeting between these two teams when the Suns effectively contained both Paul and Griffin and won by 19 on the Clippers home floor. But within the first couple of minutes of the third quarter, Matt Barnes made it clear that there would be a different result this time around. Barnes made the first basket of the half for the Clips - a left wing three off of some great ball movement - and continued to score 13 of the Clippers next 15 points, knocking down three more threes during that span.
Barnes' outburst completely swung the game. After his fourth three of the period went down, the Suns noticeably lost some confidence and started playing carelessly on both ends, breaking down defensively and losing their composure on the offensive end. The Suns would regain their flow in the fourth quarter because Jeff Hornacek is a great coach and he was able to rally his troops despite the Clips' 37-18 run in the third, but the Suns let up long enough for the Clippers to make up for their poor effort in the first half, erasing their deficit and even building a decent sized lead that helped them stay in front when the inevitable Suns run occurred in the fourth.
That run came with about eight minutes left in the game when the Suns were facing a 15-point deficit. They scored 11 straight behind some excellent defense, some big plays from Markieff Morris, including a straight blow-by of Blake Griffin on the baseline, and a couple of defensive breakdowns in the paint for Los Angeles. The Clippers stayed above water until the four minute mark when Gerald Green went on a personal 8-2 run, decreasing the Clips' lead to three with two minutes left, but a beautiful fading bank shot from the left block by Blake Griffin all but iced the game.
On a night when all of LA's western foes were victorious, this was a huge win for the Clippers, and it feels even better when you consider the hole they dug themselves in the first half. There were some gloomy moments in this game that may be more than one-time things, but pulling out a win on the road after that team had gained some confidence is impressive, because the Suns have been really, really good at home when things are going their way. But thanks to Matt Barnes, the Clippers were able to turn the tide in the third quarter, and they sailed through choppy waters for a big win.
- Barnes finished with 28 points on 12-of-17 shooting (4-of-7 from three) to go along with six rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block. Stating the obvious would be to say that he's made an incredibly compelling case for the starting small forward spot over the past two weeks, and if he can continue to shoot the three at around 40%, there's little reason to remove him from his post, or, better yet, to take any minutes away from him. He's surely to cool down after making 53% of his threes over the past five games, but if crashes at, say, 38%, then he's a perfect fit with the starting unit. More so than his shooting, Barnes' ability to cut perfectly in sync with his point guard or playmaking big man (previously Pau Gasol, now Blake) has been his best skill, and Barnes has done that very well of late. That cutting can solve some spacing issues in and of itself, and if he continues to shoot well, the Clippers' offense will keep humming along.
- Doc Rivers is a tough, yet somewhat enviable, position in regards to the bench. He's clearly having to sift through his pieces to see who has what it takes to earn a spot in the playoff rotation, which results in a pretty messy sequence of line-ups in the present day. Doc went with a wing heavy second unit in this game, putting some combination of Reggie Bullock, Willie Green, Danny Granger, Jared Dudley and Hedo Turkoglu out alongside Glen Davis and Darren Collison. The offense really stalled when CP3 sat during the first half and the offense basically amounted to Collison and Davis pick-and-rolls that netted less than ideal looks.
- Speaking of Glen Davis: I'm interested to see if Doc sticks with him as the back-up center with this team. It's pretty obvious that playing Big Baby at center is going to cause some defensive issues, which are exaggerated when he's not playing alongside any other bigs and when he's being asked to hedge on ball screens, which leaves the Clippers' backline wide open as he recovers if any team wants to slip their second big man into the lane behind a ball screen. I actually like Davis defensively, but asking him to be a small ball center with Dudley as the four is not ideal.
- Granger made his debut tonight and it was honestly nothing more than a footnote. He played four minutes in the first half and didn't see the floor again. The Clippers gave him the ball on a pinch post isolation on his first possession and he got pushed off his spot on an attempt to drive. Here's hoping that's rust. If Dudley's back spasms are anything serious, we may see Granger gets some more minutes over the next few games.
- How about P.J. Tucker? He's having a great season and it's nice to see him have success after his long journey to the NBA. He had 18 points and 10 rebounds tonight.
- 16 offensive rebounds for the Suns tonight. Defensive rebounding continues to be an issue for the Clippers, and playing Davis at center for stretches is unlikely to help that cause.
- Blake had a slow start, but he played really well in the third quarter and finished with 22 points on 50% shooting with six dimes and five rebounds. His passing, both when running the break and in the halfcourt (how sick was that touch pass to Jordan off the entry pass?), continues to amaze. In a game like this, when the Suns were not allowing any dribble penetration past the foulline, I'd like to see the Clips get into some more rotating pick-and-rolls that involve Blake catching the pocket pass and moving to the weakside for a handoff/screen-and-roll.
- It was nice to see DeAndre Jordan make those two free throws in the closing minute. That can do wonders for his confidence going forward ... or maybe he'll miss both next time around. I have no clue. But they were big in the context of this game regardless. Jordan finished with 17 boards and a couple of blocks in this game, and he seemed to tip the ball a dozen times around the rim in the fourth quarter without pulling down the board or getting the putback. I think DJ was at fault on a couple of rotations but in the second half I thought the team as a whole defended better.
- Kind of a blah game from CP3. 4-of-14 shooting for 14 points, nine assists but five turnovers. It was odd to see Doc give him so many mid-post isos on the baseline against Dragic, but it resulted in a couple of drained jumpers for Paul. He made a couple of slow reads on pick-and-rolls, which resulted in turnovers early, but Collison really picked things up as a secondary ball-handler.
That's it for tonight. I'm just getting started here at ClipsNation but I look forward to a fun stretch run with you guys and hopefully an even better post-season. Thanks for reading.