PHOENIX — An 11-point halftime lead is never enough. Ramp up the “it’s a game of runs” cliche, which can be applied to basketball, table tennis, cornhole or what have you. The Phoenix Suns, however, found a mighty painful way to lose to the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, 104-96.
Had it not been for Matt Barnes and Blake Griffin combining for 30 points and grabbing all the confidence from the youngin’ Suns during the third quarter of the game, maybe Phoenix would have pulled it out thanks to the three other “good enough” quarters of play.
“Starting to be the story of our season, giving games away, games we should easily win,” said forward P.J. Tucker. “You can’t be up 11 at half, then be down 12-11. Just can’t happen.”
The hero for the Clippers was Barnes, who scored 18 third-quarter points thanks to a few good shots but also some open looks. Phoenix didn’t come around to guarding him, and Los Angeles pulled out textbook early offense to keep the Suns on their heels.
“There were some breakdowns in there,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “Guys let it affect them on the other end. We weren’t playing defense and then we weren’t scoring.”
Phoenix scored just 18 third-quarter points, but the issues defensively were the biggest worry if the team back to only a half-game lead over the Memphis Grizzlies will hang on to a playoff spot.
So how did Barnes beat up on the Suns? A lot of credit goes to Blake Griffin, though the duo attacked Phoenix in many different ways.
On Barnes’ first shot in the opening minute of the second half, a lot of crisp action eventually finds Griffin with the ball in the right elbow after a pick-and-roll with point guard Chris Paul. The Suns defense sucks in — P.J. Tucker from Barnes, who is standing atop the arc, and Gerald Green from Darren Collison in the left corner.
Griffin kicks it to Collison, and when Green ends up contesting the three, he ends up in the stands, something that Hornacek was conscious about in his postgame interview.
“A couple times when we’re trying to run them off the three, we just ran past them so they wouldn’t shoot the three,” Hornacek said. “When we say run them off the line, you can run at them hard and then stop at the last second and make them think you’re running off the line and make them think you’re running past them.”
Green puts himself terribly out of position and forces Tucker to attempt another contest coming from the middle of the lane.
But by the time Tucker makes his move to cover Green, Collison is passing it the opposite direction rather than pulling up for a shot after a pump-fake. Channing Frye notices Barnes enough to challenge the shot, but it’s too late and the shot goes in.
The next eight Barnes points come easily: off a quick pull-up that surprises Tucker while caught behind a Griffin screen; a contested pull-up two-pointer with Tucker defending from behind; and a weakside score when Goran Dragic loses a floating Barnes on the left side of the arc.
Later on comes another major breakdown, one more significant. Channing Frye ends up watching Barnes in the right corner because of the Clippers’ push up the court.
After the trailing DeAndre Jordan sets a pick on Goran Dragic, the ball is swung to Griffin in the right elbow, who fumbles the rock as Barnes floats from the right corner to atop the three-point arc.
Paul, Dragic and a busy strong side chase after the ball.
Just as Paul saves it to Griffin, Jordan is heading toward the rim.
Notice Dragic essentially guarding an out-of-bounds Paul, Tucker and Len both concerned about Griffin, who’s turned, and Frye being more concerned about Jordan. That leaves Barnes open yet again. Green doesn’t attempt to contest the shot from the left corner thanks to Collison’s spacing, but even if he did likely wouldn’t have bothered Barnes all that much.
The point of this last play goes into what winning teams do and squads like the Suns are learning.
When Phoenix’s own offense broke down, it led to forced isolation situations. When the Clippers got disrupted, their players kept thinking. Jordan knew to roll hard to the rim, which opened up a shot. Collison didn’t panic and held his spacing in the left corner, keeping Green far away from the play. Like Phoenix sometimes does on offense, it stood and watched on defense with four players on the strong side essentially guarding two guys — Paul is just walking back inbounds as Barnes’ shot is going up.
Barnes finished his 18-point third quarter with an easy floater over a miscommunication on a pick-and-roll involving Tucker and Len, then by cutting down the paint for a layup after the defense once again loses him on a loose ball.
“It’s very, very small stuff that we’re doing that’s the difference between winning games and losing games,” Tucker said.
“We’ve got to step up right now. There’s no hiding or running away from that.”
Barbosa likely done, Plumlee day-to-day
Jeff Hornacek said after the game that Leandro Barbosa indeed broke his hand and could be out the rest of the regular season. It was a guess that Barbosa will miss around six weeks, an accurate timetable for such an injury. Barbosa won’t require surgery.
Miles Plumlee, who missed the loss with a sore knee, will be monitored and is likely considered day-to-day.
“He’s got some knee swelling so we gave him tonight off, and we’ll see how he is tomorrow for the next game (Thursday against the Thunder),” Hornacek said. “If it’s still a little swollen, maybe he misses the next game. We have two days off after that.”