PHOENIX – For the Los Angeles Clippers, it was a night those people who know the history of the Phoenix Suns can related to. Without their All-Star point guard, Chris Paul, there was something majorly missing, no matter the remaining talent.
Blake Griffin looked unenthused and potentially injured throughout after going 0-for-4 from the foul stripe in the early minutes, the Los Angeles wings struggled to hit contested jumpers and Phoenix’s Goran Dragic put together his second impressive performance in a row. He torched starting Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe for 22 points, eight assists and five rebounds.
The result? Suns interim head coach Lindsey Hunter moving to 2-0 in his tenure with a 93-88 victory on Thursday in US Airways Center.
“If you can defend, you always have a chance to win a game,” said Hunter, whose team held the Clippers to 40 percent in both halves and limited Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to 14 combined shots.
“We didn’t really deny them,” Hunter added. “We wanted to stop those athletic bigs from getting to the rim. You know, Marc is long, Markieff has been just outstanding defensively for us and Scola is always great for us defensively. The weakside is really starting to get better, recognition of cutters, getting below the ball.”
The Phoenix players stayed between their men and the rim, and the Los Angeles guard-wing crew of Willie Green, Matt Barnes and Grant Hill went a combined 6-of-24.
The Suns also failed to wilt down the stretch for the second night in a row. Dragic made a drive-and-dump to Marcin Gortat with three minutes to play for a seven-point lead, and the Suns got enough stops and won the 50-50 balls they’d often failed to grab throughout key moments of this season.
“We were doing a good job,” Scola said. “The first half they got a few dunks and a few fastbreak points. We lost control for a little bit and that’s when they made their run. But we stick with it.
“Today they made their run, we adjust, we go back to doing what we say we’re going to do.”
Up 86-82, Luis Scola was stripped driving in the lane, and a Dragic jumper with the clock winding down was blocked to lead to a Clippers fastbreak. Jamal Crawford, who had been held relatively in check up to that point, hit a corner three to bring Los Angeles within a point.
But the Suns – after using two timeouts and attempting to inbound the ball three times without a turnover – finally got the ball into play and a player at the foul stripe. Gortat hit two free throws with 23 seconds left to give Phoenix a three-point lead.
Phoenix took advantage of a 1-for-2 trip to the foul stripe for Crawford, then used a clear-path foul on the inbound pass combined with another foul on the ensuing inbound to get four free throws throws. Three of those were made for a 91-86 lead that the Suns would use to hold off the Clippers.
The Suns got a solid start, and they survived short bursts of runs without flinching like they’d often done in the past.
The Suns led 23-13 with under three minutes to play, but only led 24-20 after the first quarter. Phoenix marked up a 39-28 lead on a Michael Beasley jumper with 6:20 left in the second, but the Clippers went on a 9-0 run over the next two minutes capped by the first lob after a lazy pass by Beasley.
Of the bench unit, Morris indeed was solid if not highly effective. He scored 14 points, grabbed eight rebounds and outplayed Griffin’s modest 12 points and eight boards.
Phoenix led at the half 50-46 , the final two points coming in thanks to Vinny Del Negro and Crawford earning technical fouls in what became an odd-feeling game on national TV. Crawford would finished with a team-high 21 on 8-of-12 shooting, but he didn’t have the help in the end.
It was 68-66, Suns, after three quarters, but the expected push by the sleepy Clippers never came in the fourth.
For the second game in a row an energetic Scola, who Hunter pulled earlier in the halves to rest for the fourth quarter, filled the stat sheet. He had 14 points, nine rebounds and four assists. Dragic was the other Suns played putting together a rare string of two successful games. He hit 3-of-7 three-pointers and went to the foul stripe 14 times, making 11.
“It’s good to see him smiling and being himself,” Hunter said. “You want your point guard to have the ultimate confidence, to make mistakes to play through them, to have the total command of a team. That’s what we as a staff have tried to give to him. We’re giving him a lot of responsibility, we’re giving him a lot of freedom.”
So far, so good for Hunter’s team, which appears to be at least buying into the fight.
But, as Scola always warns, it was just one game.