After starting 21-31 and dumping one of their best players at the trade deadline, there have been few bright spots in the Los Angeles Clippers’ season.
A recent three-game winning streak, which included a win over the decent Charlotte Bobcats, had things going the Clippers’ way if only for a week. Then they had to come to Phoenix, where they haven’t won since April 17, 2007, against a team they haven’t beaten since Jan. 15, 2008.
The Suns didn’t disappoint in raining on the Clippers’ three-game parade, winning their seventh straight over L.A.’s second fiddle by taking a 125-112 decision Friday night, tying a season-high five-game winning streak in the process.
Robin Lopez led the Suns on a night in which Steve Nash and the Suns’ second unit seemed sluggish. After recording 18 points and five rebounds in the first half, Lopez finished with career high in points (30) and rebounds (12).
“Robin played extremely well for us,” said Suns coach Alvin Gentry. “His offense has exceeded all expectations.”
Lopez established a dominant post presence early, as the Suns outscored the Clippers in the paint 20-8 in the first quarter. Clippers center Chris Kaman was only able to contribute 12 points on 6-of-15 shooting in 19 minutes of play before getting ejected for arguing (two technicals) just 20 seconds into the second half.
“I just try to be very efficient out there,” Lopez said. “I’ve just got to put the ball in the basket and shoot with that kind of efficiency.”
Lopez shot 13-of-16 on the night. After the first quarter though, the post defense broke down as Lopez’s focus shifted to the offensive side.
“Our defense was not so good,” Gentry said. “They did a lot of penetration and we didn’t do a very good job keeping them out of the paint.”
The Clippers’ frustration with Lopez’s dominance showed with just 1:30 left in the game, as forward Drew Gooden earned a flagrant foul for knocking Lopez to the floor. Fittingly, Lopez hit the 30-point mark on the second free throw coming from the foul.
“He did a phenomenal job for us, rebounding the ball, going up strong and finishing over guys,” Suns forward Amare Stoudemire said.
Stoudemire finished with a relatively quiet 20 points and just three rebounds, a drop from his 10.6 a game in the month of February.
The final score makes it seem like the Suns roughed up the Clippers, but it wasn’t until the final eight minutes of the game that the Suns really pulled away. The Clippers lingered most of the game, and if not for the Suns’ 57.1 percent shooting, they might have been out of this game. The Clippers shot the ball well too, hitting 48.3 percent.
“We turned it on,” Stoudemire said. “We knew that their team is very talented and they’ve got guys who can score the ball, so you want to come out with a lot of intensity and counter theirs.”
Lopez left the game to a standing ovation after hitting his final free throw (which actually left him two points shy of matching his brother Brook’s career high of 32) and Suns fans were treated to a Taylor Griffin sighting.
Lopez’s emergence has been one of the most important parts of the Suns’ season. His preseason injury may have slowed his emergence just a bit, but he has really evolved into a solid NBA center.
“I think it just shows how much faith my teammates have in me and my coaches have in me, and that has helped me more so than anything,” Lopez said of his improvement in the starting lineup.
Lopez is becoming the versatile center the Suns desperately need. Lopez can move like Shaq couldn’t and he can muscle opponents like Channing Frye can’t. With a little more strength and improved ball handling, there is no doubt in my mind that Lopez will be a top NBA center.
The most amazing part of Lopez’s night? Not a single foul. He was able to be physical and dominant without sending anyone to the line. That is a huge improvement.
While Lopez’s career game was captivating, the performance of Steve Nash was a bit concerning. Nash finished with eight points (five of which came at the free throw line) and 11 assists. Nash’s assist numbers in February have increased from 11.0 in January to 11.8, but his points per game have dropped from 20.5 in December and 18.2 in January to 13.1 in February.
Nash seemed to be passing the ball just fine tonight, as he dished into traffic, behind his back and without looking. But he only took seven shots. That’s a major drop off after scoring 20 against Philadelphia Wednesday, and it could indicate that his back and abdomen are still bothering him, which is a major concern with just 22 games left.
Nash did get a little rest in the fourth quarter, which Gentry said was very important. Even with Nash’s anemic scoring numbers on Friday night, the Suns needed him in the lineup. At the start of the second quarter with Nash on the bench, the Suns’ secondary unit got outscored 19-11 through seven minutes of play.
The scoring numbers seem to make the bench look pretty solid, as Channing Frye went for 15 points and Jared Dudley added 12, but the Clippers out-hustled the Suns’ second unit.
“We’ve been playing pretty good defense lately and we’ve just been out-rebounding teams,” said Clippers guard Eric Gordon, who finished with a team-high 25 points. “We still played pretty good. We just couldn’t score as much as they did.”
The Clippers’ bench was key to keeping them in the game, as Travis Outlaw scored 18 points and Craig Smith contributed 16.
Having now won 11 of their last 13 games, the Suns now gear up for a meeting with San Antonio on Sunday. The Suns’ 6-1 mark since the All-Star break is tied with Chicago and Dallas for the best record in the NBA since the midseason break.
“It’s a big win to keep pace with all the other teams,” Dudley said. “But it’s a game we should win.”
Dudley made good on a bet with teammates with 49 seconds left in the first quarter by putting home his second dunk of the season off a steal.
“I was on the fast break and I was thinking about throwing it off the glass, but I thought I’d just relax and go with a two-hand,” Dudley joked after the game. “I’ve got two, but my goal is five.”
Dudley said the bet wasn’t actually specified, but was rather more of a gentleman’s bet.