PHOENIX — US Airways Center was sleepy.
It was a weird sight to see considering the Phoenix Suns had so much to fight for. The final playoff spot was on the line, and with the Houston Rockets inexplicably falling to the lowly New Orleans Hornets earlier in the night, a win would lock the Suns with the identical 33-30 record as the Utah Jazz, then give them the eight seed by holding the tiebreaker.
A few verbal fireworks marked key points that led the gritty Suns to a 93-90 victory on Thursday against the Los Angeles Clippers, who themselves are in pursuit of the Pacific Division title.
“It was a gut-check game,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “We did everything we could to hang in there and we found a way to pull it out in the end.”
With a 46-45 Clippers lead at the half, Los Angeles started inching away midway through the third quarter, opening up a 66-58 advantage with 4:30 to go in the period and looking like it was about to extend a winning streak to six games.
Then came the fireworks.
Jared Dudley got in the face of Blake Griffin after Kenyon Martin hit Dudley across the neck on the other end. The Suns forward was called for a technical, and Chris Paul’s free throw made it a nine-point Clippers lead.
“I thought that was a cheap shot,” Dudley said in the locker room. “(Martin) later apologized, but I was running on high emotion.
“Blake caught the ball, so if you’re going to go at a guy,” Dudley joked, “go at a big guy.
“(Against) Oklahoma City,” he added, “there were technicals that we got, we kind of let that get to us emotionally.”
They didn’t on Thursday, and from that point forth the arena was awake. Meanwhile, the Suns were focused.
Nash and Dudley hit consecutive threes to climb back, and finally the expected playoff atmosphere appeared. The Suns trailed 71-69 going into the final period, but both benches struggled to find the bottom of the net. The Clippers and Suns scored a combined 11 points through the first six minutes.
The score at 77-74, Griffin appeared to have a fast-break dunk, and Robin Lopez went up for the contest, but raked Griffin around the neck, causing a brief, yet tense period where the two teams had to be separated. Lopez was ejected and Clippers guard Mo Williams was assessed a technical for reacting after the hard foul.
A back-and-forth ensued and the Suns would tie the game with 1:15 remaining on a Dudley three-pointer, his final three points of a team-high 18. Nash scored on a running scoop shot over Griffin after a Clippers’ score, and free throws shot for both teams — after three combined questionable calls — put Phoenix at a 91-90 advantage.
Paul’s shot was blocked out of bounds by Sebastian Telfair with eight seconds left — Telfair was alongside Nash in the final two minutes to defend the All-Star point guard — and Channing Frye secured a Mo Williams miss off the inbound play, then hit two free throws to ice the game.
“It wasn’t our type of game really,” said Nash, who finished with 13 points and six assists. “It wasn’t a clean game by either team. We could have gone south a lot. Big win.”
Each team took two and a half quarters to feel one another out, and neither led by more than four points in the first half. Both struggled to shoot above 43 percent in the first half as well, but they finished with identical 44.6 percent accuracies.
The Suns got 14 points and 14 boards from Marcin Gortat, 16 points from Frye, and 13 from Telfair despite the point guard struggling with a rib injury.
Paul had 10 assists and scored 19 to lead the Clippers, but he only shot 6-of-19, a stat Gentry was proud to point out afterward. He was also pleased that, after Griffin had 14 points in the first quarter, the Suns held the All-Star forward to just two more points thereafter.
“(Assistant coach) Elston (Turner) has done a great job of making it so our defensive gameplan is to take all of the lobs and all of that away,” Gentry said. “Really, if you go back to the first quarter, the dunks that (Griffin) had came off our turnovers. We’ve done a good job of making him make basketball plays.”
Hard fouls aplenty
Robin Lopez’s ejection with six minutes to play in the fourth quarter did indeed warrant the toss.
Nevertheless the Suns’ backup center wasn’t worrying about his ejection or potential fallout from the league if it decides he should receive further punishment.
“Tried to go for the ball, tried to go for his arms,” Lopez maintained. “It’s my job to protect the rim.”
In addition, Lopez cited the Suns’ focus on disallowing dunks and layups from the Clippers’ big men considering their poor free throw shooting. That and a hard-nosed attitude were the topic of discussion after the game.
“I think, you know, people have kind of called Phoenix soft in the past,” he said. “Tonight I think we tried to do a good job of being the aggressors, especially near the end.”
Steve Nash on his shot over Blake Griffin that appeared to touch the tip-top of the backboard before going into the net: “I saw him (coming) like Carl Lewis out of the blocks. I was like, I better kiss this soft off the top because he was racing to get there.”
Jared Dudley on Sebastian Telfair’s pesky defense: “The black Sasha Vujacic. Kind of someone you hate, gets under your skin.”