PHOENIX — Doc Rivers had a fight even before he arrived to U.S. Airways Center on Wednesday. He battled traffic from the Diamondbacks game next door en route to the game and was late to his pregame media session. When he finally made it, Rivers joked that baseball and basketball shouldn’t be played on the same day.
Suns coach Jeff Hornacek took a little longer than normal to make it to his postgame media session. When he arrived, there were no jokes and look on his face wasn’t defeat but frustration.
Phoenix had fought blow for blow with the Los Angeles Clippers, but after 17 lead changes and 12 ties fell 112-108, taking not only a painful punch to the gut, but perhaps a wound deep enough to keep the Suns out of the playoff race.
And it wasn’t that Los Angeles didn’t overcome adversity beyond Rivers’ traffic troubles.
Blake Griffin gave it a go despite suffering from a back injury, and it was quite clear how much he was limited. It said a lot that Channing Frye eventually began trying to take the laterally-limited Griffin off the dribble, and when Griffin struggled to finish shots through contact.
Los Angeles overcame a depth-less roster, Griffin’s stiff back, two technicals and a 17-point lead in the third quarter. And that’s why Hornacek looked so pained.
“We’re telling (the Suns) at the timeout that we got to get the ball up the court quicker. We’re trying to run a play. By the time we got into the play there’s 13 seconds left on the shotclock,” he said. “Maybe that’s a conditioning thing for some of the guys. They’re not able to play the 40 minutes like some of these other guys.
“Looked like Chris Paul had all the energy in the world at the end of the game.”
It’s hard to take because the Suns know they have it in them.
This wasn’t a game because Phoenix was playing out of its mind. It was a playoff-style back-and-forth, and the Suns just couldn’t respond when their lead became a two-point deficit.
Phoenix outscored Los Angeles 42-40 in the paint and held them to a reasonable 46.8 percent shooting. Channing Frye got going, finally. The Suns crashed the offensive glass behind P.J. Tucker’s 10 points and 11 rebounds and Miles Plumlee’s strong 13-point, 7-rebound outing. They recorded 23 second-chance points to just 12 for the Clippers, and the bench got strong nights from the Morris twins and Gerald Green.
This is how it didn’t matter: After 24 seconds of solid defense by the Suns, Chris Paul drilled a deep three with the 24-second clock running out to give the Clippers their sixth score in five possessions from the 4:47 mark of the fourth quarter to the 1:47 mark.
“That three, that is one of (those) nails in the coffin,” Dragic said.
On the next Los Angeles possession, the Clippers crashed the glass twice to finally score on a seventh possession in a row.
The Suns’ only scores in the final four minutes came on Eric Bledsoe drives, but a game-tying attempt with 10 seconds left was blocked back into Bledsoe, whose momentum had taken him out of bounds. Bledsoe played only 30 minutes and got into early foul trouble defending Paul, his former mentor. He also earned a technical for a questionable charge call drawn by former Sun Jared Dudley.
Meanwhile, Paul made his biggest contribution on the defensive end, tangling often with Goran Dragic, who made a living at the foul stripe — he even drew a tech on Paul — but went 2-for-11 from the floor.
“You gotta give (Darren) Collison and Chris Paul some credit,” Hornacek said. “They didn’t let our guys penetrate. Kind of a tale of two sides there. We couldn’t penetrate and they did.”
Added Dragic: “We should play like that. Sometimes, refs, they cannot call every foul and you can still be aggressive. Tough game for us.”
So on the Suns march with this game’s lessons in mind, though with seven difficult games left, they wish they could march in the month by that name. Or February. Or January.
Time is running out to take any more lessons like this.
“We told the guys — again, it’s like a broken record,” Hornacek said. “We tell them all the time, you can’t have a two or three minute lull against these top teams. End of the third quarter I think we were too casual, just taking some, ‘Oh let me get up a shot here.’
“All of a sudden they have it down to seven (point) with their subs in there. That’s really when the game changed.”