For the second consecutive night, the Los Angeles Clippers were embarrassed on national television by a (supposedly) inferior opponent. Thursday night in Arizona, the Phoenix Suns dismantled L.A. 118-104 in a game that really wasn't as close as the final score indicates.
J.J. Redick had been ruled out earlier in the day after leaving Wednesday's defeat in Dallas at the half with back spasms, so the Clips knew ahead of time they'd be coming into Phoenix shorthanded. However, shortly before tip, news broke that Chris Paul would also sit with an array of maladies (groin, finger, eye). So, Doc Rivers had to piece together a starting backcourt with Pablo Prigioni and Austin Rivers to go against the dynamic Suns duo of Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe. It was a suboptimal situation, to say the least.
This game was always going to be a bit of a longshot for the Clips without both of their starting guards, but they hung tough with Phoenix throughout the first half. The problem? They had absolutely no answer for Knight or Bledsoe. While Knight was unconscionably hot from deep, Bledsoe was able to knife his way through the butter-soft Clipper defense and get to the rim at will. Knight would finish the game with six three-pointers, four of which came in the first 24 minutes.
Despite the defensive shortcomings, the game still seemed winnable for L.A. shortly prior to the break. A Blake Griffin layup through traffic with 2:36 to go brought the Clippers to within one at 49-48. Griffin, who had been slapped with a technical foul earlier in the period after a spat with Mirza Teletovic, felt he'd been hacked on the play. And it sure looked like he had, but there was no whistle. Griffin was demonstratively yelling at the official afterward, which was enough to draw his second "T" of the night. Griffin's incessant complaining had worn on the patience of referee Brian Forte, and he decided to run Blake from the game.
The quick trigger from the official was questionable, but it's easy to see why it happened. The cameras repeatedly caught Griffin jawing with the refs throughout the night, and he ultimately uttered the right combination of magic words that got him thrown out of the game. Fair or not, Griffin has a reputation as a guy that'll complain plenty, and it seems to have caught up with him here. The officials had had enough, so he was tossed. It was disappointing to see Blake lose his composure in a game in which he was obviously sorely needed by his team.
This would prove to be the nail in the Clippers' coffin. Following Griffin's exit, the Suns went on a 9-1 run over the final two minutes of the quarter and went into the half with a 58-49 lead. So, the Clips were tasked with overcoming a nine-point deficit on the road, on the second night of a back-to-back, without (arguably) their three best players. The team came out after halftime with good energy, but ultimately weren't able to generate enough offense to keep up with Phoenix. There was a (brief) glimmer of hope after Bledsoe had to leave the game early in the third after picking up his fourth foul, but T.J. Warren picked up right where Eric left off.
The second-year winger scored 10 of his season-high 18 points in a sub-two minute stretch midway through the third that helped Phoenix surge to an 18-point lead. LAC's offense had devolved into an array of missed Jamal Crawford jumpers and missed Austin Rivers layups, while the Suns were (pun VERY intended) ablaze. After three, the Suns led 93-73. The Clippers had the look of a team that was exhausted both mentally and physically. The offense repeatedly sputtered, and they weren't helped by their awful 15-28 shooting from the free-throw line, either.
Knight finished this game with a career-high 37 points on 14-22 shooting from the floor, including 6-10 from three. Bledsoe nearly triple-doubled against his former team, finishing with 26 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in 35 minutes. Phoenix as a team shot 53% from the field and made an astounding 14-30 three-pointers. The Clippers shot 44% and hit 9-26 from deep.
It was largely an ugly evening for the Clippers, but there were some positives. Doc deployed a Stephenson-Johnson-Pierce-Crawford-Smith lineup early in the second quarter that played well together. This is a five-man group we had only seen in one game to this point (at Sacramento, per NBA.com), and it fared well in that one, as well. It may struggle to defend, especially when opponents go big, but it's a unit that plays with good pace and puts five semi-capable ball-handlers on the floor at once. Hopefully Doc took notice and utilizes it more often going forward.
Wesley Johnson has been a bright spot for the Clips off the bench so far this season, albeit in limited minutes. He played well once again in this one, scoring 14 points on 5-11 shooting, including 3-6 from beyond-the-arc. He got off to a sluggish start from three-point range this year, but has now hit five of his last eight tries over the last two games. Johnson showed in his two seasons with the Lakers that he's developed into a respectable three-point shooter, which is something L.A. sorely needs right now. As a team, the Clips are connecting on a brutal 30.5% of their triples on the year. The team needs any floor-spacing it can get, and Johnson seems like a useful source of such a thing. It would be nice to see him get rewarded with an expanded role.
There are going to be nights like this over the course of an 82-game season. Are there areas of concern for the Clippers? Of course. Doc is still tinkering with his rotations in an attempt to find the right combinations. The players clearly haven't fully grasped the new, less-aggressive style in which the staff wants them to defend the pick-and-roll. Lots of open shots are still clanking harmlessly off the rim. The Clippers were simply outmanned and outclassed in this game. It happens. The Clippers (5-4) will now head home for a Saturday afternoon showdown with Andre "Wilt Chamberlain" Drummond and the surprising Detroit Pistons.
The Clippers got a scare late in the first quarter when DeAndre Jordan appeared to injure his left arm/side after challenging a shot. He went to the bench, where he was examined by the training staff. He would eventually return, and afterward the Clippers were calling it a "stinger". It's not believed to be serious.
Doc said prior to the game that Redick's back spasms would likely keep him out of Saturday's game, as well. CP3 was reportedly not moving well during pregame warmups, which is why Rivers decided to hold him out on the second half of the back-to-back. No word yet on his status for Saturday.
Phoenix lost both Markieff Morris and Ronnie Price during this game. Morris left in the first with a knee injury, while Price was hurt after running into a Josh Smith screen in the second quarter. Neither would return to the game. Morris is believed to have a sprained left knee, while Price was being tested for a concussion.