With the Golden State Warriors' 111-90 loss to the San Antonio Spurs earlier tonight, the Clippers had a chance to clinch the Pacific Division for the second straight year with a win over the Phoenix Suns. Thanks to losses by the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors, Phoenix had the opportunity to get within one game of the sixth seed. The scene was set for an entertaining and intense divisional clash.
Although the game was fairly close during the first half, the Suns threatened to run away with the game in the third quarter, and it seemed for a moment that we were headed for a blowout similar to the one Phoenix inflicted to the Clippers in LA in late December. Although the Suns led by as much as seventeen late in the third quarter, the Clippers bench held their ground and slowly chipped away at the lead, with help coming from several unlikely contributors.
For the second straight game, Jared Dudley got significant minutes and made huge plays for the Clippers, especially down the stretch. He hit a three-pointer midway through the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 3, then was fouled driving for a layup and hit a pair of free throws that gave the Clippers their first lead since late in the second quarter. Then with ten seconds to go and the Clippers leading by two, Dudley played excellent defense on Eric Bledsoe, who was driving for a game-tying layup, allowing Darren Collison to block him from behind and seal the game. He then calmly hit a pair of free throws for the final margin.
Collison also had an excellent game, putting up 23 points and 5 assists. For long stretches of the game, it seemed like he was the only Clipper who was able to consistently make shots, by attacking the rim aggressively and hitting open midrange jumpers. He helped spark a Clippers run late in the third quarter that marked the beginning of the comeback from 17 down, with the help of Jared Dudley and Willie Green.
The Clippers may not have even needed a comeback in the second half if they were able to contain the Suns bench in the first. Gerald Green and the Morris brothers were impossible to stop in the second quarter, hitting almost every shot they took, and accounting for 39 of the Suns' 62 points at halftime. Despite Eric Bledsoe getting into foul trouble early and mostly limiting Goran Dragic, the Suns outscored the Clippers 37-30 in the second quarter, taking a two-point lead into halftime while hitting 58% of their shots.
In the third quarter, it was the Suns' starting bigs' turn to get hot from the field. Channing Frye, who entered the game ice-cold from three (29% in the month of March), hit four long-range shots in the second half, while starting center Miles Plumlee went 6-7 on the night, including a running hook and-one over DeAndre Jordan. With Dragic and Bledsoe penetrating the defense and generating easy shots, and PJ Tucker repeatedly ripping down offensive rebounds to give the Suns second chances, Phoenix began to pull away in the third quarter as the Clippers went ice-cold from the field. Even after Doc Rivers called a timeout with the Clippers down seven, the team was unable to staunch the bleeding.
It's surprising I've gotten this far in the recap without mentioning either of the Clippers' superstars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Both delivered gritty performances on the tail end of a long road trip, especially Blake, who returned after a one-game absence due to back spasms and was clearly not himself for most of the night. He played through the pain and although he became a liability on interior defense down the stretch, he also had a clutch tip-in with a minute left to put the Clippers up by 4. He finished with 23 points, including an astounding tip-slam in the first half where he put back a missed shot over a pair of Phoenix defenders and DeAndre Jordan.
And Paul continued his stretch of brilliant play since the stinker of a Pelicans game, hitting four threes (52% in his last four games), including a four-point play at the end of the first quarter over a crossed-over Plumlee, and a fearless 30-footer with the shot clock winding down late in the fourth. He and Collison were active in the passing lanes for much of the fourth quarter, disrupting the Suns offense and providing fast break opportunities for Los Angeles.
The Clippers are now 54-22 (they were 50-26 at this point last year), repeat Pacific Division champs, and all but guaranteed to beat last year's franchise record for wins. They now return home for a SEGABABA with the Dallas Mavericks, kicking off the final homestand of the season.
— Jamal Crawford again sat out resting his leg, although Blake Griffin did end up playing despite being a gametime decision. Every starter played more than 30 minutes except for DeAndre Jordan (who sat the entire fourth quarter as the Suns put five shooters on the floor). Doc Rivers leaned surprisingly hard on his starters even though the Clippers will play again tomorrow night. It should be noted most of the Clippers' starters played heavy minutes last Wednesday too, and they still won on a road SEGABABA in Dallas. No reserves entered the game for Los Angeles until the three minute mark of the first quarter.
— News came out during the game that JJ Redick was planning on returning to action within the next few games, and perhaps as soon as the Dallas game. This is welcome news for a banged-up Clippers backcourt, and obviously has longer-term ramifications as well.
— The Clippers were on the receiving end of bad whistles in the first half. Two obvious clear path fouls on the Suns were both overturned, and Chris Paul was called for a technical after a fairly weak offensive foul call drawn by Goran Dragic. Matt Barnes was also T'd up early in the third quarter after being hammered on a drive to the rim that resulted in a no-call and Suns ball.
— Barnes was a major spark early in the game, making a variety of shots around the rim in the first quarter, including a powerful dunk after he rebounded his own missed three. He went cold in the third quarter however, and his insistence on taking three-pointers led to multiple consecutive Suns fast break opportunities that helped them build up a large lead.
— The Suns and Clippers entered tonight 1-2 in the league in fast break points, scoring more than eighteen each per game. They combined for 21 tonight.
— With the loss tonight, the Suns drop to 44-31, again falling into a tie with the Grizzlies and Mavericks for the final two playoff spots (although due to tiebreakers they're currently the odd man out in this three-team race). None of these teams seem able or willing to create separation, although Dallas will have a chance to take a lead tomorrow night in Los Angeles.
For the opponent perspective, check out Bright Side Of The Sun.