In Sunday’s 108-103 loss to the Clippers, we saw the Suns as equal parts naughty and nice.
There was the lethargic unit in the first half that appeared to enjoy too much Christmas ham as the Clippers ran circles around them and exposed the Suns as a group that couldn’t handle all the athleticism Los Angeles threw at them.
Then we saw a Phoenix squad that woke up in the third quarter with a spirited effort thanks to Grant Hill’s work on Blake Griffin and superb efforts from the Suns’ newcomers after their disappointing debuts to cut an 18-point deficit down to one at the end of three.
After making yet another comeback from 10 points down with two minutes left thanks to the ineffective defense of Clippers big man Jarron Collins and some clutch scoring from Steve Nash and Mickael Pietrus, this game came down to one possession and the Suns literally dropped the ball.
Following a Pietrus baseline drive for two and a long ball to cut the lead to one, the Suns had the ball trailing by three (after two Randy Foye foul shots) needing just one shot to send the game into overtime. They got the ball to Pietrus, who had the hot hand all afternoon, but Eric Gordon stripped him as he was preparing to go up for a game-tying shot and Al-Farouq Aminu’s slam closed the deal.
“They did a good job defensively,” head coach Alvin Gentry said of the final play. “The timing of the play didn’t go exactly as we would have liked. They played great defense on it and you have to give them credit for that. It shouldn’t have come down to the last play.”
Pietrus starred for the Suns offensively with 25 points on 9-for-14 shooting from the field and 5-for-8 shooting from deep in 27 minutes. He had the hot hand all game, but he’s really more of a catch and shoot guy than somebody you want to trust dribbling into a three in that situation.
The Suns had 19 seconds to play with at the beginning of the possession, so they could have easily gone for a quick two on a Nash drive, fouled and then seen where they were at that point. A heavily-defensed Pietrus heave seemed a little too desperate for that situation, but as Gentry noted the timing of the play didn’t go as the Suns would have preferred so perhaps the play was designed a bit differently.
The Suns flat-out lacked energy in the early going during their first afternoon game of the season as the Clippers built up a 51-33 lead with five minutes left in the first half while Blake Griffin scored every which way, including this YouTube-worthy jam.
“We were really lethargic in the first half,” Nash said. “You can use the excuse that it was due to the fact we were still adjusting to the new guys. We lost the game in the first half though.”
The Suns buckled down in the third quarter, holding the Clips to 18 points after their 61-point first half thanks to Grant Hill locking horns with Griffin and taking him out of his game a bit. The Blake went for 19 and eight in the first half but had just two points and three boards in the third.
It would be amazing at any age for a guy to have to defend everyone from LeBron to Durant to Manu to Dirk to Blake during a stretch, but for that man to be a 38-year-old small forward makes it even more incredible. The Hill-Griffin matchup led to things getting a little feisty on both sides and both players nearly fouling out (Griffin did while Hill had five), as the Suns fed off Hill’s energy on the defensive end and played a superb quarter of basketball.
“He is a physical player,” Hill said of Griffin. “He is a strong player. I was doing all I could to help us fight back and keep him off the boards. I try to be physical with other players in the league but with a player like Blake Griffin there is no point.”
After finally tying the game at 85 with 7:54 remaining on a Pietrus triple, the Clips went on a quick 8-0 run before eventually staving off the Suns’ final rally.
Along with Hill’s excellent defense, the other bright spots came in the form of the Suns’ newcomers. After combining for six points on 3-for-11 shooting to go with four rebounds and one assist in their underwhelming debut, both players were noticeably more comfortable in this one.
As mentioned earlier, Pietrus’ 25 points and clutch scoring made him the offensive player of the game, and Gortat enjoyed a solid all-around game with 11 points, five boards, a steal and a block, although he was a -19 in his 27 minutes.
More than anything Gortat provided an interior presence that the Suns have often lacked, especially when Robin Lopez has been on the bench. Although he couldn’t handle Griffin, he played solid defensive possessions against the other Clippers big men, playing straight up defense on Ike Diogu before getting a block on one possession and providing a solid rebounding presence.
Both players looked much more comfortable, although there were some growing pains seen through turnovers. Pietrus in particular displayed the kind of confidence with his shot that he just didn’t possess on Thursday night, and with two more practice days before Wednesday’s game they should get even better.
It’s always disappointing to drop a game against a losing team like the Clippers, especially considering how bad the Suns played in that first half. This is a game they should have won, and now they’re three games under .500 for the first time all season thanks to the loss.
But Vince Carter is on the mend and should return in the next week and the Suns got a glimpse of how well Gortat and Pietrus might fit to provide a silver lining on an afternoon in which the Suns blew a winnable game.
Robin Lopez played just 10 minutes, Josh Childress nine and Hakim Warrick seven as the Suns’ newcomers played 27 apiece. I’m surprised Lopez didn’t play more, but I could see Childress and Warrick start to get squeezed out of the rotation when Vince Carter returns, although knowing Gentry minutes will likely often depend on matchups and who is going well (which Pietrus was today). … Nash missed his first seven shots before connecting on a four-point play set up by Goran Dragic. He still finished with a fabulous game by going for 21 points, 15 assists and four boards without a turnover while connecting on eight of his last 13 shots. … The Suns lost for the first time in their last 10 meetings against the Clippers.