Life doesn’t get any easier for the Phoenix Suns as they visit the Los Angeles Clippers one night after a tough loss to the Spurs at home. The Suns have cooled off as of late losing three of their last five games. While those losses have come against three of the top five teams in the NBA, this is the road that Phoenix must travel to get to the playoffs.
The Suns sit at .500, two games back of the seventh and eighth seeds. By my calculations, the Suns will need to win nine of their remaining 16 games to have a shot at the playoffs. That push for the postseason starts tonight against a Clippers squad which appears to have righted their seemingly sinking ship.
Just a few days ago, many people in the media were questioning whether Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro would survive the season after players openly questioned his offensive schemes and the team stumbled to three losses in a row. Now Del Negro has the backing of his GM and owner and the Clippers have won two straight. Those two wins bring the Clippers’ post All-Star break record to 8-10 – not exactly the same team that was dominating the Lakers in the Pacific Division in the early part of the season.
Even with its three recent losses, Phoenix is 11-5 since the break. This hot streak is not a fluke. The Suns have not been winning simply because they played a ton of home games or played bad teams. Everyone on the roster has stepped up their game and fully embraced their role within the team dynamic. The clearest case of this is Shannon Brown’s performance last night. Brown, starting in place of the injured Grant Hill, scored a career-high 32 points on 11-17 shooting. Shannon was the biggest reason the Suns were in last night’s game until the final minutes. It’s clear that Brown has built up his confidence over the last 16 games, and it was on full display against San Antonio.
I believe that confidence has come from Gentry solidifying his and the rest of the reserves’ roles. With Hill likely to miss tonight’s game and Steve Nash possibly playing fewer minutes because of a stiff back, Phoenix’s bench will be heavily relied upon again. The reserves will need a performance more akin to Sunday’s 54-point outburst against Cleveland than last night’s 22-point whimper against the Spurs.
The second unit will be matched up against a group of Clippers’ reserves that has also started to gel as a unit. Grantland’s Robert Mays recently profiled “The Clippers’ Other Guys”. He described a group of guys in white headbands who are excited to play together as a unit and take pride in their performance. They have built their own identity and have become a huge asset to a Clippers team that will need depth if it wants to make any kind of noise in the Western Conference playoffs. While the matchups between Steve Nash and Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Marcin Gortat, or Blake Griffin and anyone standing in his way will grab more headlines, it is the matchup of the second units that will decide tonight’s game.
In their two previous meetings (both Phoenix victories), the Suns came out on top because of their defense. In the first matchup, Phoenix held LA to 35 percent shooting. They also won the rebounding battle (52-46) and kept the Clippers off the free throw line. In the second game, Phoenix played without Nash and Hill and was beaten in almost every statistical category, but still somehow, the Suns won the game. The Suns will need to buckle down on defense again and fight for every rebound if they want to leave the Staples Center with a victory tonight. The Clippers are 17-3 when scoring over 100 points and 3-7 when held to 90 or fewer. Although the Suns have shown flashes of their former selves in games since the All-Star break where they’ve scored 100-plus points with ease, a low-scoring game with a staunch defensive effort is their best chance at a victory tonight.
Three Keys to Victory
- Keep the crowd out of it. As difficult as it might be to avoid getting posterized by the always-lurking Blake Griffin, keeping Kia’s spokesman contained needs to be priority No. 1 for Phoenix. If the Clippers get on a run and Blake finishes a few highlight-reel dunks, the crowd at Staples might spur the team to 110 points and a win. Thus the Suns must be physical with Griffin from the opening tip to the final horn and make this a boring game for the LA crowd. I’m not advocating any Jason Smith-style tactics, just strong physical play on defense and the boards. The Suns held Blake to 17 points on 19 shots in the teams’ first meeting. They will need that level of effort this time around. The good news for the Suns, Blake is a terrible foul shooter, and the Suns have lots of fouls to give. Look for Hakim Warrick to get some time in this game if only to send Blake to the line six times. By keeping Blake at the stripe and out of the air, Phoenix can slow the game down and grind out a win.
- Defensive rebounding. Giving up offensive rebounds has been Phoenix’s Achilles’ heel all season long. Several games this year have turned for the worse on a single offensive rebound given up after a great defensive stand in crunch time. The players on the floor must realize they that haven’t made a stop until they’ve secured the rebound. I know from his sideline reaction to these plays that Gentry is frustrated by these lapses on the defensive glass. He no doubt stresses the importance of these plays to his players. They must buy in to what he’s saying tonight. This is especially important against a Clippers team that can elevate and slam home missed shots with the greatest of ease. The Suns must put a body on DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, and Kenyon Martin on every single shot.
- Always be closing. The Suns have lost more than a few games in the closing minutes of the fourth this year. The Clippers have the best closer in basketball in point guard Chris Paul. This is a recipe for heartbreak unless the Suns commit to playing all 48 minutes and are prepared to weather any run the home team makes. The Suns have already beaten LA in two close games this year. With both teams fighting to move up in the standings and this condensed season quickly drawing to a close, tonight’s game will likely be decided in the fourth. The Clippers aren’t just going to give the Suns a win, in the same way that the teams ahead of Phoenix in the standings aren’t simply going to step aside and wave the Suns by. Phoenix will have to fight for everything it gets the rest of the way.