The Phoenix Suns had previously been able to frustrate Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin by using physical, rim-protecting defense to keep the athletic All-Star at bay. At least, it was enough to pull out two gritty victories against the Lob City Clips this season.
Griffin must’ve gotten tired of it.
The power forward scored 27 points on 13-of-19 shooting and led a late third-quarter streak that culminated in a ferocious, fourth-quarter dunk on Channing Frye and ultimately, in a 103-86 Clipper victory Wednesday night in Los Angeles.
In the end, despite decent rebounding and taking care of the ball, Phoenix’s 37.5 percent shooting for the game coupled with an emphatic burst from Griffin and crew doomed the Suns (25-26), who had a dinged-up roster and little room for error.
Aside from those skewed field goal shooting percentages, no statistical category stood out for the Clippers.
It was all about that little thing called momentum.
With a 64-60 lead with three minutes left in the third quarter, a subtle statistical run of 17-10 by Los Angeles through the next six minutes punched a large hole in the Suns’ sails. Eight of those Suns points were scored by Robin Lopez and that partially hid the sputtering of the second unit’s offense. Twelve of the Clippers’ points during that time were scored uncontested by Griffin or Clippers point guard Chris Paul, who finished the night with 15 points and 15 assists.
Even when Phoenix’s starters re-entered the game, it was already too late — the Clippers had found a groove, and from then on they carved up the Suns’ defense and in the final quarter scored 14 paint points en route to a 29-point fourth quarter on 61.9 percent shooting. Meanwhile, Steve Nash, possibly struggling with a stiff back that also bothered him against the Spurs, couldn’t get the Suns’ offense back into shape to keep up. Phoenix shot just 31.9 percent in the fourth to turn the final score into a blowout despite the first half and nine minutes being a back-and-forth affair.
The implosive end of the third that bled into fourth quarter were further examples of how much Phoenix has suffered this season when the bench unit struggles.
Such struggles have often been left on the court for the starters to sort out, and in this one that included an abysmal 14-point second quarter that began with the bench.
Magnifying those issues, the Suns also dearly missed — at the very least — the bodies of Grant Hill and Markieff Morris. Hill sat out his second game in a row with a tender knee while Morris remained sidelined to illness. Hakim Warrick and Robin Lopez combined for 16 points and nine rebounds, but with Shannon Brown filling in for Hill in the starting lineup and having much quieter of a night than his 32 points from the prior San Antonio game, there wasn’t enough firepower to keep up with the Clippers.
Frye and Marcin Gortat kept pace with the frontcourt of Griffin and DeAndre Jordan for a while, as both frontcourt duos had 23 first-half points with Los Angeles holding a 43-41 lead at the break.
Nash did his part in recording 15 assists by game’s end, but the point guard went 0-for-4 from the floor and finished with one point on a night his team could’ve used the scoring.
Add in Sebastian Telfair’s 0-for-5 shooting, zero points, zero assists and two turnovers, and it was a recipe for disaster.
About the only thing the Suns had going offensively was Gortat’s 23 points. Frye scored 16, but it came on a 6-for-15 shooting night, including an ugly 2-for-11 mark beyond the three-point arc.
The Suns have now have lost three of their past five, and though they’re all defeats at the hands of decent-to-stellar ball clubs, time is running out.
Injuries to Hill and potentially Nash could signal the end of a playoff push, although both the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz fell Wednesday evening as well, keeping the Suns two games back of those two clubs and the Houston Rockets. And with the Suns set to face the Jazz and Nuggets in the next four games — and once more after that, each — time isn’t yet out.
But at some point, games against the likes of the Clippers and the Spurs, who Phoenix also will see again, will have to be won.
Even if the likes of Tim Duncan and Blake Griffin have something to say about it.