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Clippers-Suns preview: Going for Season Series Win

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After winning the first two meetings of the year in their home building, the Los Angeles Clippers head on the road with a chance to seal and steal the season series away from the Phoenix Suns in just the third matchup of the year. It won't be easy.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
2014/2015 NBA Regular Season
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29-14

26-19
January 25th, 2014, 3:00 PM
US Airways Center (Phoenix, Arizona)
Prime Ticket, FSAZ, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Win-Loss Breakdown (2014-2015)
13-8 East 13-6
16-6 West 13-13
6-2 Division 6-3
19-7 Home 13-8
10-7 Road 13-11
10-11 .500+ 9-12
19-3 .500- 17-7
1-0 OT 0-4
7-3 L10 7-3
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Eric Bledsoe
J.J. Redick SG Goran Dragic
Matt Barnes SF P.J. Tucker
Blake Griffin PF Markieff Morris
DeAndre Jordan C Alex Len
Advanced Stats
96.50 (13th of 30) Pace 99.23 (2nd of 30)
110.8 (1st of 30) ORtg 107.3 (5th of 30)
103.4 (15th of 30) DRtg 104.0 (19th of 30)
Injuries/Other


Clippers lead 2014-2015 season series over Suns; 2-0
Date
Venue
Final
Clips Nation Recap
ESPN Box Score
11/15/2014
Los Angeles
Clippers 120, Suns 107
Recap
Box Score
12/08/2014
Los Angeles
Clippers 121, Suns 120
Recap
Box Score

The Big Picture
After starting off the year at 16-5, the Los Angeles Clippers went through a stretch where they played roughly .500 basketball before going on a little 3-game win streak that they'll take with them into Phoenix on Sunday afternoon. The team has just two road wins all year against teams that are currently .500 or better. Those teams being the Portland Trail Blazers and the Houston Rockets (sans Dwight Howard). To put it simply, this is a pretty big test for the team. After this game, the Clippers will travel home to play the Denver Nuggets, who will be on the second night of a back-to-back as well and probably will be without point guard Ty Lawson due to a DUI. But the Clippers cannot look past the Phoenix Suns, who have been good recently. The Clippers currently sit just 1½ back of the 2-seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference and losses hurt more than ever now.

The Antagonist
As it currently stands, the Phoenix Suns have a 3-game lead for the 8-seed over both the New Orleans Pelicans and the Oklahoma City Thunder. But the pressure is coming from Oklahoma City more than from New Orleans. However, the Suns have been good ever since their rocky 12-14 start to the year. They're 14-5 since that point and have good wins over teams like Washington, Dallas, Toronto, Cleveland, and Portland. They also had brutally tough losses to Oklahoma City and Memphis during that stretch, with both coming on the road. As well as to Houston last night. This team is no joke and coach Jeff Hornacek has them playing extremely well for the second straight season. The Suns are currently in the midst of a brutal schedule right now. The Clippers game represents the third of eight straight games against .500+ teams and with them looking to hold Oklahoma City at bay, every game is massive for them.

For More: Visit Bright Side of the Sun

The Subplots
Comparison of Key Metrics
Somehow the Los Angeles Clippers have raised their Offensive Rating from 109.4 last year, which was tops in the league, to a ridiculous 110.8 this year. The Phoenix Suns have seen their Offensive Rating rise from 107.1 last year to 107.3 this year. It's a small gain, but a gain nonetheless. There were 12 teams last year that posted a 105.0 Offensive Rating or better. Five of those teams -- Clippers, Suns, Mavericks, Warriors, and Raptors -- have actually raised their Offensive Rating this year. That's pretty unreal. Defensively, the Clippers and Suns are pretty average to below-average metrics wise. But the offensive boost has negated the defensive slip. The Clippers have a Net Rating of +7.4 this season after having a +7.3 mark last year. Meanwhile, Phoenix posted a +3.3 Net Rating last year and still sits at +3.3 this season. So, all in all, these two teams, at least metrics wise, are right where they were last year in regards to overall Net Rating.
Schedule
It's looking slightly ahead since the Clippers still have two games, counting this one, to go until they begin their road trip but there is an 8-game road trip upcoming. The "Grammy Trip" never ceases to annoy and pester but it's there and it's something the team has to deal with. It starts off pretty simple, actually. They play in Utah and then New Orleans but then business picks up quickly. The Clippers get San Antonio on the second game of a back-to-back (SEGABABA), then travel to play Brooklyn, and then have a couple days off. Once they come off that two-day rest, they play the Cavaliers in Cleveland, then the Raptors in Toronto on a SEGABABA, turn around to fly to Oklahoma City to play the Thunder in an afternoon contest, and then travel to play the Mavericks in Dallas to complete the trip with a SEGABABA. Ultimately, the trip ends with a 4-in-5 stint that'll span about 1500 miles. And the times of the games are also very odd. For Phoenix, their upcoming schedule, as mentioned, is pretty tough. This is game three of eight straight against .500+ teams. It does lighten up a little in mid-February and early March, though.
Questionable Blogger
Dave King, from Bright Side of the Sun, and I exchanged questions with one another about our teams and his answers are easily attainable by clicking right here. If you'd like to talk more with Dave, you can always tweet him at @DaveKingNBA. My answers to Dave's questions are right here.
Teacher v Student
Since Eric Bledsoe got traded to the Phoenx Suns in the offseason of 2013, the Clippers and Chris Paul have beat the Suns in 3 of the 4 meetings. However, they've played against each other seven total times throughout their careers. During those seven games, Paul has averaged 18.4 points and 8.4 assists on 45/47/79 shooting. Bledsoe, meanwhile, has averaged 9.4 points and 7.7 assists on 44/27/80 shooting. But Bledsoe was phenomenal during the last matchup. The prodigy put up a triple-double that totaled 27 points, 16 assists, and 11 rebounds while also having 2 steals and 2 blocks. Paul wasn't far behind, though. He had 20 points, 10 assists, and 7 rebounds. The interesting thing with Bledsoe's last game against the Clippers is that he scored more points in that game than he had in the previous three meetings with the Clippers (22). Paul and the Clippers won the game but nothing should be taken away from Bledsoe's performance. For this meeting, this matchup is the big deal. It's Mr. Miyaga versus Daniel-san. Whoever waxes more, wins.
Griffin v Tucker
First off, any mention of these two guys goes right to this little heated exchange on March 10th of 2014. For his career, Blake Griffin is averaging 22.2 points per game against the Phoenix Suns, as well as 8.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists. Griffin's career True Shooting Percentage against the Suns (.586) is the third highest against any team in his career. The only others higher are against the Sacramento Kings (.597) and the Utah Jazz (.629). Where P.J. Tucker comes into play is that he's had a good year, can be a difference maker, and has been relatively mellow as far as impact against the Clippers this season. He's only put up 12 total points on 5-for-14 shooting. Tucker is tough, can alter a game with his defense and rebounding, and has the ability to step out and hit crucial shots. Clippers must keep him under wraps once again, especially from long range. And, just perhaps, if that happens again, the Clippers can walk away winners in the Valley of the Sun.
Jordan v Len
DeAndre Jordan isn't too far off his per game numbers from last season but he's also doing it in fewer minutes this season. If you extrapolate his numbers to a per-36 minute basis, Jordan is averaging more points and rebounds than he did last year. Like last season, he also leads the league in rebounding and field goal percentage this year. He's actually on pace to post the highest field goal percentage in a season in the history of the NBA among players that qualified. Jordan is also looking to become just the second player in NBA history to shoot 70 percent or better from the field in a season. The other? Wilt Chamberlain. He was sorta decent. But the real key here is Jordan's matchup with fellow center Alex Len. Since being put into the starting lineup on December 15th, the Phoenix Suns are 14-6. While Len is only averaging 7.5 points in those 23.2 minutes since his inclusion into the starting lineup, he's also managed to accrue 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. The Suns starting lineup during that period has an Offensive Rating of 108.0 and a Defensive Rating of 92.5 (for a Net Rating of +15.5). To put it simply, Alex Len has been a difference maker since being put in there. So don't overlook what Len is capable of.
X-Factor
This is a tough call between Isaiah Thomas and Gerald Green. Instead of picking one or the other, I'm going to pick the duo. The Clippers bench did a good job against the Brooklyn Nets but the Nets don't have a pair of guys off the bench like the Suns do. Thomas and Green are capable of taking over a game on any night of the week. It's up to the bench to put a stop to that and help the starters out a little bit. Over the last eleven games, Thomas is averaging 16.5 points on 50/47/88 shooting. Meanwhile, Green is averaging 13.1 points on 43/33/100 shooting. Keeping them under wraps, or at least as much under wraps as you can, is going to be a big deal. That falls on guys like Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, and Matt Barnes. I have a feeling they'll be getting a lot of the minutes against those guys.
The Last Meeting
The last time these two teams met, it wasn't just the fact that Blake Griffin scored 45 points and helped the Clippers win on a last-second shot. It was the way it happened. The ball seemed destined to fall by the wayside, until it decided it just wanted to end up at the bottom of the net. Wild bounce be damned. It was an awesome game by both sides and it ended on a game-winner by the guy who deserved it more than anyone else. That game represents just one of the six games this season that a team has made 15+ threes and lost. Whether it's bad stroke of luck for the Suns, great stroke of luck for the Clippers, or just general "stuff happens", that game was a huge deal for both parties. Each team had the game won at different times until they didn't and then Griffin's three sent the arena into a frenzy. Very few more memorable games than that one.
As The Rivers Flow
Austin Rivers has had an interesting four game start to his Clippers career. He got indoctrinated early against the Cleveland Cavaliers and had to guard Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, two of the premier offensive players in the game today. While they scored on him, it wasn't like Rivers defended them poorly. Against Sacramento, he finally recorded his first point (on a free throw) and defended Darren Collison quite well. Against the Boston Celtics, he scored his first basket on a crazy layup and did a solid job for the most part. But the last game against the Brooklyn Nets, we saw a little bit of what he is capable of. His defense was once again pretty good, he got to the rim, and he even hit a three. He finished with 9 points, 4 rebounds, and 6 assists in 24 minutes. However, he was 0-for-4 from the line. There has been good and bad with Austin so far. He's shown that he has the capability to be an adequate defender, based on his athleticism and hustle. He really tries on defense. The big thing about defense is, in fact, trying. He competes there. While he has problems finishing around the rim, he at least can get there and it's a nice change for the bench to have a guy who can actually go downhill. But his shooting is just poor. And that is somewhat troubling. He's still figuring things out. He's still getting used to some of the guys on the bench. However, from the early returns, Austin Rivers might be more impactful than we had initially hoped. At least defensively.
Be Quick, But Don't Hurry
This is one of those famous John Wooden quotes that Bill Walton still says on a near daily basis during whatever broadcast he's working. But it is true. Especially against the Phoenix Suns. The Suns are second in pace in the NBA this year and they love to get out and run. They're second in pace, second in fast break points, and third in points off turnovers. They're also the sixth best team in the league at forcing turnovers (opponent's turnover ratio). The Clippers are a pretty middle of the road team in pace and have the third best turnover ratio in the league, turning it over just 12.6 times out of 100 possessions. So this is an interesting contrast in styles. Phoenix wants to turn you over, get out in transition, and kill you with pace and space. The Clippers can combat that by taking care of the ball, hustling back on defense, and exploiting mismatches early in possessions when possible. They have to be decisive and quick with their decisions, but they can't get too out of sorts or else the Suns will make them pay. Phoenix has forced 31 Clippers turnovers in the two meetings this year. Playing with fire can burn you. Los Angeles needs to be smart.
S.H.I.E.L.D. v HYDRA
Look at the Clippers as the good guys in this battle. They're trying to protect the world from the emerging beast that is HYDRA. The HYDRA lineup for the Phoenix Suns -- Bledsoe, Dragic, and Thomas -- has played 146 minutes this year. That group has an unreal Offensive Rating of 118.4, which has helped them offset the 105.3 Defensive Rating they've had. The trio can present problems for any team and, while coach Jeff Hornacek doesn't use them a lot, they're used very strategically to change the flow of the game and try to speed teams up into a pace that they won't like. The trio's pace of 104.29 is astronomically high. Among trios that have played at least 100 minutes this season, the HYDRA group is second in pace to only Golden State's Curry-Iguodala-Green trio (104.43). There's no telling how long, or even if, that group will be out there together. But when they are, the Clippers must be sure not to play into their hands and fall victim to their style of play. Cut off one head and two shall rise. But burn the spots that the heads are severed at, and you have a viable way to win.
Connections
Eric Bledsoe and, now, Reggie Bullock can both say that they used to be members of the Los Angeles Clippers. Clippers small forward Matt Barnes spent the 2008-2009 season with the Phoenix Suns and Clippers reserve forward Hedo Turkoglu was traded by Toronto to Phoenix back in July of 2010. He spent a few months in Phoenix before the Suns dealt him to Orlando in December of that year. The Morris twins (Kansas) and Blake Griffin (Oklahoma) would have played against each other one time in college but Griffin missed the game due to a concussion. Isaiah Thomas and C.J. Wilcox both went to the University of Washington, as did Spencer Hawes. Miles Plumlee and Austin Rivers were teammates at Duke for one year. Plumlee, Rivers, J.J. Redick, and Dahntay Jones are all Duke alumni. Chris Paul and P.J. Tucker actually played against each other twice in college, with Wake Forest and Texas splitting the two meetings. Miles Plumlee and Ekpe Udoh met in college one time during the NCAA Tournament. Plumlee's Duke squad won, but Udoh had 18-10-6-1-5 for Baylor. Alex Len and Austin Rivers met twice in college with Duke beating Maryland both times. And, lastly, Rivers and Reggie Bullock met twice in college, as well. Duke and North Carolina split the meetings with Duke's win coming at the hands of Austin Rivers' game-winning three.
Wikipedia Entry
NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander explored the arctic plain of Mars. It was the sixth successful landing out of seven attempts but was just the first to successfully land in the Martian polar region. However, despite it fulfilling its mission, the lander was unable to be communicated to after November 10th, 2008. As of May 12th, 2010, the JPL declared the lander to be dead and has since stopped trying to communicate with it. Despite the lander's communication failures, the mission was still deemed a success by NASA due to it completing all planned scientific observations and experiments. Unfortunately, it looks like the Phoenix Mars Lander will not be doing what the mythological creature its named after was so famous for; rising from the ashes.