Last night, the Los Angeles Clippers did the Suns a favor by defeating the Denver Nuggets. Tonight, Phoenix will try to avoid a similar fate.
Both the Clippers and Suns are jostling for playoff position, but the sense of urgency — obviously — is most prevalent in Phoenix. After suffering a 109-97 loss at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder last night, the Suns find themselves tied with Houston at a half game out of the eighth seed, with four games left in the regular season. The Clippers, too, are a half game out of their goal of catching the Lakers for the Pacific Division title and the third seed in the Western Conference.
It’s always fun to lean on the narratives of desperation and resiliency, but tonight’s game, and the playoff race, will largely be decided, as has often been the case for Phoenix this year, by a battle of the frontcourts.
The Clippers are fourth in the league in offensive rebound rate differential (the difference between their own offensive rebound rate and how often they allow opponents an offensive rebound) in large part because of one of the most formidable front lines in the NBA. The Suns have shown flashes of solid post defense of late, with Channing Frye’s defensive contributions being of particular note, but trying to limit Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and even Kenyon Martin represents a particularly daunting task.
Of this, the Suns are well aware. Marcin Gortat, who certainly has his work cut out for him, said, “It’s going to be a huge challenge. They have two very good big men inside.”
One can be sure that boxing out, securing rebounds and limiting points in the paint will be atop coach Alvin Gentry’s keys to the game, enumerated on the whiteboard of truth in his office.Jared Dudley, on the other hand, seemed fairly confident about Phoenix’s chances against the Clippers, saying, “We’ve got the Clippers, who we match up well with, we’re at home. We control our own destiny, we’ve got to come back and win. Win three out of four and we’re probably in the playoffs, so this is what we wanted, three of these games at home. Even though it’s against good competition to end the season you can look back on it and say, ‘Hey, you played your way in, you played your way out.’”
Indeed, Dudley is correct about the Suns controlling their own destiny. Their next two games come against the Nuggets and Utah Jazz, two teams against whom the Suns are competing for that last spot in the playoffs out West. But their playoff fate largely rests on tonight; with the Jazz idle, Phoenix has the opportunity to move back into the eighth seed ahead of those upcoming matchups.
Beyond the battle of the big men, there’s the always entertaining war of the Point Gods. Chris Paul and Steve Nash lead two of the top 10 teams in the league in offensive efficiency (the Clippers are third and the Suns ninth, according to Basketball-Reference). The possibility of Paul and company shredding the Suns is very real and very terrifying; Phoenix is likely to be without its defensive stopper, Grant Hill, whose ability to cover multiple positions would go a long way toward slowing the CP3 Show. According to Gentry, “[Hill] could play, but I don’t want to stick him out there unless I know he’s OK.”
Phoenix has defeated the Clippers nine straight times in US Airways Center, but their most recent victory came in a game where Los Angeles shot extraordinarily poorly from the line. Part of that can be credited to the Suns’ defense, but it’s also, at least to some extent, a fluke. Phoenix will need to lay it all on the line in order to overcome that regression to the mean and give themselves a fighting chance at the playoffs.
As usual, Nash put it best after last night’s defeat to the Thunder: “We’ve just got to go for broke tomorrow night and hope that all our hard work and determination will pay off.”
Hope is a good thing. Rebounding and defense are even better.
Nash recently joined KTAR in Phoenix to discuss his future with the Suns after this season. He was mostly noncommittal in his answers, sounding like someone who neither wanted to tip his hand and, in turn, rock the boat for a team in the middle of a playoff push nor was sure what the future would bring. There has been speculation that Nash’s family situation would play a big part in his decision making, but he generally dismissed the notion that it would be any more of a factor than the numerous variables that go into this type of conclusion.
“It’s one factor, but it’s not going to be the deciding factor. There’s a lot of ways around that, so the family situation is not me being number one or the only factor. It’s one of many factors to throw in the hat. The family situation isn’t immovable or a permanent one. That can be [one] that is sorted out as well, so that’s not something I am thinking about at this stage and frankly I’m not even thinking about free agency because it’s…besides tough games on the plate and us being in the No.8 seed that is more than enough to keep me busy these days.”