Time: 8:30 pm MST
The story of The Prodigal Son is about a reckless young man who left his father’s home to seek his fortune in places unknown. All he found was despair and failure. I’m not sure if there’s an opposite story to that of the Prodigal Son, but it should be called the Tale of Eric Bledsoe.
Bledsoe arrived in Phoenix after three years in Los Angeles. He had served as backup to Chris Paul for two seasons and in limited time had shown flashes of being a truly great player in his own right. He was one of if not the most coveted player asset in the NBA last offseason. When Ryan McDonough was able to bring Eric to the desert, it was the first of several signs of changing fortunes in Phoenix. The acquisition was cause for optimism, though no one knew exactly how much optimism and success were in store this year. Though the Suns have gotten immense and surprising contributions from every corner of their roster this season, I believe it’s safe to say that Bledsoe was the spark that led this team to 18 wins before New Year’s when many questions whether they’d get 18 wins all season. Bledsoe has been everything any pundit or team executive thought he could be, and we’re only 29 games into the year.
Tonight the Suns head to LA to face the Clippers, a team who like the Suns, bounced back in their last game from a disappointing loss. For Phoenix, their double digit win over the 76ers helped erase the pain of their worst loss of the year in GoldenState the night before. For Los Angeles, their 98-90 win over Utah helped them recover from back-to-back two point losses to GoldenState and Portland on December 25th and 26th respectively.
This battle between Pacific Division foes will be a real test of Phoenix’s playoff contender credentials. Trouncing less than adequate teams like the Sixers and Lakers is one thing, but to truly contend, the Suns will have to hang tough and battle teams like the Warriors and Clippers to ensure neither runs away with the division. For more on tonight’s matchup, let’s pose three big questions.
Will the student become the master?
The marquee matchup in tonight’s game is quite clearly between former teammates Eric Bledsoe and Chris Paul. Paul comes into this game leading the league is assists by a wide margin. He’s scoring nearly 20 points per game and he’s fourth in the league in PER. Bledsoe will have his work cut out for him every minute CP3 is on the court. One of the things that makes Paul so hard to guard is the way he alters his playing style throughout the game. He will go long stretches without taking a shot in order to get his teammates involved and keep them engaged. But then at the drop of a hat, he can become ultra-aggressive and take the game over offensively. This variation can trick defenders into expending less effort or helping more on defense, an approach which Paul will take advantage of 10 times out of 10.
The good news for Phoenix is that Bledsoe watched Paul do this for two years. He guarded him every day in practice. If there’s anyone in the league who has a chance to stifle or at the very least slow down Chris Paul, it’s Eric Bledsoe. Look for Bledsoe to use his size and speed to make Paul work defensively and potentially tire out the all-world point guard who is playing his fourth game in six days.
Will the Suns find their range from deep?
After fantastic performances from three against the Mavericks and Lakers, the Suns have submitted two stinkers from downtown in their last two games. Phoenix is 13-of-56 in its last two outings, and though one of those was a victory, the Suns won’t win many games when they fail to utilize one of the best weapons in their arsenal. Tonight the burden of getting right from beyond the arc will fall on the starters, who have only made four threes in the last two games, down from their average of over 5 made threes per game. Whether or not the shots or falling, the Suns perimeter players have to shoot from deep if only to stretch the defense and give themselves more room to penetrate. Both Dragic and Bledsoe attempted zero shots from deep against the Warriors who were very aggressive about running the Suns off the line. The Suns abandoned their usual game plan and got blown out in that game. They would be better served sticking to the script against the Clippers.
Who would you rather have: Miles Plumlee or DeAndre Jordan?
Before the season this was an exceedingly laughable question. But now, it’s a legitimate inquiry. Miles Plumlee is coming off a career game where he scored 22 points, grabbed 13 boards, and blocked three shots, all in just 32 minutes. Plumlee has been one of the biggest surprises of the season, and it seems as though his confidence is peaking right now after a lull in the early part of this month. From the standpoint of a straight statistical comparison, Plumlee trails Jordan in major categories like rebounding, blocks, and FG%. Miles has the slight edge over DeAndre is points, but he is leading the Clippers’ center by a wide margin in offensive capability. Plumlee has shown a wide variety of post moves including a versatile and effective jump hook. Jordan finds his points off of lobs and put backs. The Clippers rarely if ever throw the ball to him in the paint and ask him to get a bucket. Both men are 25 years old, but Plumlee has just one year of experience while Jordan has five. DeAndre is what he is at this point, while Plumlee may have a long way still to come. It will be very interesting to see who gets the better of the other tonight at Staples Center.