If you didn’t believe that seven days was a lifetime in the NBA, take a look at what has transpired for the Phoenix Suns since they took the floor at US Airways Center last Thursday.
Following a fourth quarter meltdown that led to a 98-94 defeat at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks, Alvin Gentry mutually parted ways with the organization, player development coordinator Lindsey Hunter received quite a promotion and was named the interim head coach, Suns legend Dan Majerle left his post as an assistant coach, an FBI investigation of Hunter was brought back to light and a reported confrontation took place between veteran center Jermaine O’Neal and general manager Lance Blanks.
Save for Wednesday night’s come-from-behind 106-96 victory in Sacramento — the first of Hunter’s coaching career — the Suns certainly have provided enough material to make a Hollywood script into a TNT drama.
Speaking of Hollywood, Thursday night’s opponent and the only real attraction these days in the City of Angels, the Los Angeles Clippers, come to the Valley with a little bit of misfortune, as well.
Granted Vinny Del Negro’s squad is still 21 games above .500, but after two straight losses to the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City, the Clippers’ are no longer in the driver seat for the No. 1 seed out West. Combine that with the bruised right kneecap that continues to hamper six-time All-Star Chris Paul, and Los Angeles has its first taste of adversity in a season that has seemingly seen all of the team’s stars align.
Don’t fret for the Clippers, however, after all general manager Gary Sacks has arguably assembled the perfect mix of players to create a team that has youth, veteran leadership, athleticism, depth and star power. Basically, all of the ingredients necessary to make a deep run into June.
With Paul reportedly out for Thursday’s contest, the onus once again falls on three-time All-Star Blake Griffin for the third consecutive game. While “Lob City” might not be in full effect sans Paul, Griffin is without question playing his best basketball of the 2012-13 season. In Tuesday’s loss to the Thunder, the former No. 1 overall pick scored a season-high 31 points to go along with 11 rebounds. For just the second time this season, Griffin has posted double-doubles in three consecutive games. And in the month of January, Griffin has scored at least 10 points in every contest — something he failed to do in November and December.
Griffin is getting by with a little help from his friends, however.
12-year veteran Jamal Crawford is making possibly the best All-Star case of any bench player this season. The 2010 NBA Sixth Man of the Year has all but locked up the prestigious award for the second time in his career, averaging 16.6 points and 1.1 steals per game in under 30 minutes a night.
While Crawford deserves to hear his name when the reserves for both conferences are announced Thursday, if doesn’t, expect him to take it out on the Suns’ rather porous perimeter defense.
Paul, Griffin and Crawford definitely make the league’s fourth-most efficient offense (107.2 points per 100 possessions) go, but the Clippers aren’t short on support.
Now in his 11th year, former Suns forward Matt Barnes is having the most proficient offensive season of his career (11.2 points per game and 48.4 percent shooting). Former No. 10 overall pick Caron Butler has seen his numbers go up-and-down for the better part of the campaign, but he has never been gun shy when it comes to taking a big shot and remains Los Angeles’ fourth-leading scorer (9.7 points per game).
Throw in the maturation of DeAndre Jordan (8.8 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game) and Eric Bledsoe (8.7 points and 2.7 assists), the little things that Willie Green provides at both ends of floor (40 starts in 40 games) and role players (Lamar Odom, Ronnie Turiaf and Ryan Hollins) that understand their responsibilities, and Del Negro is never short on lineup options on a given night.
In two wins over Phoenix this season, the Clippers have won by a margin of 22 points a contest. Yet still something tells me Suns fans have at least one reason to be excited about their arrival Thursday.
Grant Hill, who saw his career rejuvenated in Phoenix for five seasons, comes back to town healthy for the first time this season. Hill, who played in at least 80 games three times in a Suns uniform, will forever be a fan favorite for his professionalism and leadership, especially during the team’s Western Conference Finals run in 2009-10. In six games since his return to the Clippers (knee surgery), Hill has averaged 4.3 points and 2.2 rebounds in 15 minutes per game off the bench.
Keys for a Suns win…
Replication. Phoenix and in particular Michael Beasley have had a hard time replicating their good habits this season. The former No. 2 overall pick was a catalyst (scored 15 of his 19 points) in the fourth quarter of the Suns’ 10-point win over the Kings Wednesday. However in the five games directly following a performance of 18 points or more this season, Beasley is averaging just 9.6 points a game. That won’t cut it against a team as deep and as talented against the Clippers.
20 or below. The Suns are coming off a game in which they forced a ridiculous number of turnovers (24). That will be hard to match against a Los Angeles squad that ranks No.7 in the league in fewest turnovers committed. But turnovers aren’t the only name of the game. Albeit was against lowly Sacramento, but the Suns kept the Kings to 20 points or fewer in two different quarters Wednesday. For a team that doesn’t rebound the basketball very well and has an affinity for giving up the three-point shot that is easier said than done. But in games against superior foes, defense might just be the only chance at an equalizer the Suns have.
Embrace the drama. Let’s be honest, if the past seven days for this organization weren’t rock bottom, then I don’t know what is. It’s been ugly. The talk around town hasn’t been pretty. Robert Sarver, Lon Babby and Lance Blanks have even appeared on local radio to try and shed some light on their recent decisions. The Suns have an opportunity to play out their drama on national television Thursday night, which on paper sounds like the worst possible timing. But maybe it’s the best recipe to mute the noise. A win over Sacramento felt good, but it didn’t accomplish much. A win over Los Angeles on TNT doesn’t accomplish much in the standings, but it could go a long ways towards shutting off the surrounding noise, at least in the short-term.
- The final ball appears to have dropped Thursday in terms of Lindsey Hunter’s coaching staff. Assistant coach Elston Turner, who served parts of two seasons under Alvin Gentry, has agreed to part ways with the organization. Turner played eight NBA seasons and had 14 years of experience as an assistant coach before coming to Phoenix in 2011-12.
- With former NBA point guard Lindsey Hunter now at the helm for the Suns, there was some expectation that rookie Kendall Marshall might see more minutes. In the Suns’ victory Wednesday, however, the former No. 13 overall pick was the only player in a Suns uniform not to see the floor.
- The Suns have been known for comeback wins this season, but none quite like the one in Sacramento. Wednesday’s win marked the first time in 2012-13 that the team came back to win on the road after trailing by more than 10 points and after trailing going into the fourth quarter.