Preview: Clippers (12-16) at Suns (18-11)

Suns 124, Clippers 93





PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns will suit up on Christmas Day for the third straight season when they host the Los Angeles Clippers tonight at US Airways Center.

I’m sure the Suns would have preferred even a lump of coal to their recent two-game home losing streak, but despite their recent struggles, they will receive one gift that can be used effectively for the next four months, barring injury.

He is a knock-down shooter, has blazing speed and can even pass as a goat if needed. Tonight the Suns will welcome Leandro Barbosa back to the lineup.

An hour before the Suns’ Wednesday night loss to the Thunder, head coach Alvin Gentry said, “Barring anything catostrophic in the next 24 hours (Barbosa) will be lining up and playing Christmas Day.”

Catastrophe has been avoided and LB will indeed make his highly-anticipated return to the Purple Palace. Gentry expects LB to assume his usual role in the offense, saying, “We’ll just stick him in there and see what happens.”

The Suns have been without the Brazilian Blur for 12 games since he went down with a left ankle sprain on Nov. 29 in Toronto. During that stretch they have gone 4-8, dropping from one of the NBA’s elite to just another mediocre Western Conference ball club.

With LB out of the lineup, the Suns have averaged 103.4 points per game in December, almost nine points less than they were scoring heading into 2009’s final month.

“I think what I have which is good for the team is the speed,” Barbosa said in a STATS preview. “Sometimes I think that the team gets a little bit tired and I think that’s when I come in and give them a little bit of speed, and right now, I’m not there, so there’s nothing I can do.”

Now there’s something Barbosa can do about it. He can step in and take control of the bench that has shown youth and inconsistency in his absence. But the question is, did the Suns actually fall back down to earth or is Leandro truly that big of a staple in this team’s success?

Tonight’s contest against the Clippers may not answer that question, but it will be apparent fairly soon if LB”s absence was the reason for the high-octane Suns’ December disappearance.

There were obviously other factors that played a part in the drop off, such as the the level of competition — Cavaliers, Lakers, Mavericks, Nuggets, Spurs, Trail Blazers, etc. — and the fact that six of the first nine December games came on the road.

But Barbosa’s return couldn’t come at a better time — well, Dec. 1 would have been nice, but you can’t always get what you want. The Suns are sputtering, and much like in the Wizards game after losing a tough one in Denver, they need to come out and take care of business from the get go, and it starts with intensity out of the gates and rebounding the basketball for a full 48 minutes.

“We can’t allow that,” Stoudemire said of the Thunder’s 16 offensive rebounds last time out that resulted in 23 second-chance points. “The offensive rebounds they managed throughout the night — we’ve got to find a way to keep them off the offensive boards. I think teams are now saying, ‘OK, we can crash the offensive boards against the Suns,’ and we’ve got to change their mentality and do a better job of that.”

The Clips have some dangerous talent, and if the Suns don’t box out and go get it, Marcus Camby (11.7 rpg) and Chris Kaman (9.0 rpg) will murder them on the boards.

The Suns need to rebound so they can nip this losing streak in the bud, regain their top-notch form at home and give Phoenix fans a big ‘W’ for Christmas.

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