The Flow of the Game:
The first quarter started off with a flurry of activity. Both teams raced up and down the court, missing shots at a rate that suggested destroying the rim was a stronger priority than winning the game. Lance Stephenson looked a bit hyper but in a good way, flying around on defense and making several beautiful passes off the dribble. Chris Paul also looked energetic early, darting in and out of picks to get free for a couple shots and whipping passes all over the court. Sadly, most of those looks by both Lance and Chris went to JJ Redick, who was absolutely ice cold tonight and had missed three open threes by the first timeout. The Suns were no better off, however, and the score remained tight.
Amidst all the bricks, there were exciting things taking place. Lance slammed home a CP3 miss, and shortly thereafter Blake threw down a lob that Paul sent him from halfcourt. Despite these thunderous jams, the basket seemed to have a lid on it for any shot outside the painted area. Things only got worse when the 2nd units gradually subbed in, as the slow stream of made baskets became an almost non-existent trickle. The Suns were able to claw their way into a one point lead at the end of the 1st period, but neither team looked like they were going to get anywhere near 100 points.
The start of the 2nd quarter was even more grim, as an Austin Rivers-Jamal Crawford-Wes Johnson-Paul Pierce-Josh Smith lineup didn't make a field goal for several minutes. Meanwhile, Ronnie Price of all people drained a couple threes and was a steady hand at point guard for the Suns. The Clippers were not getting clean looks, and the offense just didn't seem to be creating anything. All of a sudden, DeAndre Jordan checked into the game for Josh Smith, and the Clippers were forcing turnovers and getting out on the break. Rivers and Wes each made a couple nice baskets and pushed the Clippers into a small lead. Then the starters checked back in, and the brief stretch of exciting play was over. The Suns couldn't catch up though, largely due to the play of Markieff Morris, who was missing wide open shots on one end and getting taken off the dribble by Blake on the other. Bledsoe sitting out most of the quarter with three fouls didn't help matters, and the Clippers led by 9 at halftime.
The Clippers forced a shot clock violation on the Suns to start off the 3rd quarter, but shots soon started to fall for both teams. Redick finally made a three on a highly contested off the dribble attempt, and Blake hit an incredible off balance jumper to beat the shot clock. Ominously, Markieff Morris hit an open 3, and his confidence noticeably swelled. Soon he was posting up Blake, taking defenders off the dribble, and nailing jumpers. Bledsoe began to get more penetration and this cleared the way for Tyson Chandler to get lobs and tip ins. The Suns had a brief lead before Josh Smith hit two 3 pointers and made a fantastic pass off a spin to get Wes Johnson an easy layup. The Clippers led 75-72 at the end of the third.
The 4th quarter went much the same as the previous three quarters, with each team going on short stretches of inspired play before lapsing into lazy defense and missed jumpers. Austin had a couple nice drives to the rack, but once again Ronnie Price stepped up by hitting a three and then finding a cutting TJ Warren under the hoop. This was a symptom of the bigger issue: Doc played Jamal Crawford the entire 4th quarter over Lance Stephenson, who had been playing well. Crawford had an off night shooting the ball and was getting roasted on defense, but Doc stuck with him anyway. Bledsoe made a nice move in the post on Griffin, yet CP3 came right back with the counter. The Clippers were able to maintain their three-four point lead, and with the help of a couple missed Suns free throws and their own clutch makes, finally put the game away in the closing minute.
Jamal over Lance: Doc simply must stop playing Jamal so much in the 4th quarter unless he is absolutely on fire. Paul Pierce is a better option to stretch the floor, and Lance Stephenson is a far more talented defender and all around contributor on the offensive end. Jamal can't play NBA defense any more, especially against other team's starters down the stretch. TJ Warren is a bigger player than him and grabbed several offensive rebounds leading to a couple easy baskets. This wasn't Jamal's fault, but it is Doc's. I still think Jamal has his uses on this Clippers team, but playing crucial late 4th quarter minutes (outside of icing the game for free throws) is no longer one of them.
A frigid night at the shooting guard position: If the Suns would have pulled this out, Clippers fans would have remembered all those open JJ Redick corner three pointers which are usually automatic. Indeed, he went 3-12 on the night and 3-10 from behind the arc. But Brandon Knight was even worse for the Suns: he went 4-20 and made only 1-8 of his threes. He did put up seven boards and eight assists, but the amount of open shots he missed tonight could be numbered in the double digits. It was a game to forget for both starting guards.
Blake Griffin is amazing: While his numbers were not as eye popping as they have been so far this year, 22 and 10 is plenty good, and more importantly he scored baskets when the Clippers really needed them. The Suns announcers were in awe of his free throw shooting, and his 6-7 mark is just another sign that his good percentage from the stripe is here to stay.
DJ disappoints: I mentioned in my preview that DJ was playing against his prototype as a player in Tyson Chandler, and I thought he had a good chance to dominate him tonight. Unfortunately, that was not the case, as Tyson had 14 points and 17 rebounds while DJ only had seven and nine. His return was crucial in sparking that 2nd quarter rally, but this was a poor game by his standards. Tyson continually got inside position on the glass and secured six offensive rebounds, most of which lead to immediate buckets for the Suns. DeAndre is now a max player, and max players need to bring it. Every. Single. Night.
The rest of the bench steps up: While Crawford did not play well, everyone else on the bench had moments of glory tonight. Josh Smith finally hit a couple threes (even though I was yelling even as he took them) and had several very nice passes. Austin played his usual good defense and took it hard to the rim a couple times when the Clippers needed points. Wesley Johnson was perhaps the best, shooting 4-5 from the field and boasting a game high +15 on the court in +/-. He made good decisions, played solid defense, and helped ignite the Clips on the break. He deserves more minutes.
The minutes crunch: Lance only played 18 minutes. JJ got 28 and Jamal got 26, while Austin and Wes had 18 and 14 a piece. All those players deserve minutes, and there just aren't enough to go around right now. Taking some off of Jamal is the easiest step, though it is doubtful that Doc would consider it, and the move might cause locker room friction. I do think a trade of a guard/wing for a big is coming at some point, but I don't know for who or when.
The Suns: This was an off game for Brandon Knight (and Morris outside of the 3rd) and the Suns just didn't have enough other options on offense to get them consistent points. They have no low post threats, and Knight is the only comfortably above average outside shooter. They are tough, play good defense, and have decent depth, but I think the Suns are either going to need to trade some of their youth to make the playoffs or sell their veterans and get into a deeper rebuild.
Looking ahead: Wednesday is the big showdown, the one everyone has been waiting for. The Clippers will travel to Oracle Arena to take on the defending champs, the seemingly unstoppable Golden State Warriors. The Warriors have won their first 4 games by a combined 100 points, the highest mark ever, and Steph Curry is playing at an even more ridiculous level than Blake right now. The Clippers will need to shape up on both ends if they want to have a shot at beating the Warriors on the road.