Every winning streak must come to an end. After four consecutive victories, the Phoenix Suns fell last night in Portland 96-93. After a very tightly contested game, the Trail Blazers’ win streak now stands at five games. That’s nothing compared to the Suns’ next opponent.
Tonight the Suns take on the Los Angeles Clippers, who have won 12 games in a row and currently sit second in the Western Conference, just one game behind Oklahoma City. The Pacific Division standings look like something out of a bad dream upon first glance. The Lakers and Suns are struggling to get to .500 while the Warriors and Clippers are a combined 22 games over .500. Unfortunately, this season is not just a nightmare which the Suns can wake up from. The Clippers are very real, as are the Suns’ early season struggles. Tonight’s game will be a difficult test.
The first obstacle for the Suns to overcome is scheduling. Phoenix is 0-5 on the season in the second night of back-to-backs. The team played an 8 p.m. game in Portland last night before returning to Phoenix for tonight’s matchup. Their legs are sure to be tired. The Clippers on the other hand, had the day off yesterday after. Los Angeles will be fresher than the Suns. Their bench is deeper, too.
The Clippers have cultivated an incredible second unit this season. LA currently has 11 players who play at least 11 minutes per game. This depth keeps the starters fresh and allows the Clippers to be ruthlessly efficient both offensively and defensively. Los Angeles is the only team in the NBA to rank in the top five of John Hollinger’s Offensive and Defensive Efficiency statistics. The Clippers score 1.07 points per possession while allowing opponents to score just 0.97. It’s no surprise the Clippers lead the league in point differential at +9.0, which is a full point better than Oklahoma City and best in the NBA. Over their 12-game winning streak, the Clippers have beaten opponents by an average of 14.8 points per contest. Despite all the stats and facts about the Clippers’ dominance, the Suns still have a chance to get the win tonight.
Though they’re five games under .500, the Suns are 9-5 at home this season. That’s a better winning percentage than Phoenix has posted in either of the last two seasons. US Airways Center has been a stronghold for the team in the past (2009-10 home record: 32-9). While the Suns won’t approach that lofty mark this season, it’s not unreasonable for this team to win 60 percent of its home games.
The Suns need to push the pace in tonight’s game. At first glance, this seems counter-intuitive given that the Suns are playing a back-to-back and the Clippers are rested and deep. But for all of their depth, the Clippers actually play a very average pace (17th in the NBA). The Suns may be able to push the pace and set LA back on its heels. In order to generate transition opportunities, the Suns will have to play solid defense at every position. It’s much harder to push the ball and score quickly when taking the ball out of the net after every defensive possession.
The Suns’ new starting lineup has played extremely well together over the last five games. One area where the team as a whole has shown a marked improvement is defense. In the last five contests, Phoenix has allowed just 85 points per game (record: 4-1). Over the previous five games, Phoenix allowed 96 points per game (record: 0-5). Improved defense as well as better offensive chemistry has been the key to the Suns’ turnaround.
For the starters, containing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will be key. Both of these players like to score inside of 18 feet, and the Clippers as a whole do not shoot the three-ball well (23rd in the NBA). Look for Phoenix to pack the paint and focus on rebounding to keep the Clippers to only one shot. The reserves will have their work cut out for them as well, especially on the perimeter. The tandem of Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford could probably start for more than a few NBA teams. The Suns’ bench will have to work to keep these two in check and not let the game slip away when the starters are resting.
The final key to a Suns’ win may be Michael Beasley. The Clippers will likely put 32-year old Matt Barnes on Beasley. If his head is in it, Michael should have no problem getting to the rim against Barnes. And with DeAndre Jordan on the bench, the Clippers have no other rim protectors to bother his shot. Beasley has still not adjusted to coming off the bench, but tonight is as good a night as any to put it all together and bust out of this slump.
UPDATE: Beasley to sit out
Beasley will miss tonight’s game due to an illness.