Preview: Phoenix Suns (7-13) at Los Angeles Clippers (12-6)


Los Angeles Clippers 117, Phoenix Suns 99



As Sam Cooke famously sang in 1963, “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Those five words are rather fitting for the Phoenix Suns as they take to the road Saturday afternoon to face arguably the most complete team in the Pacific Division, the Los Angeles Clippers.

Before Thursday night’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks, head coach Alvin Gentry suggested in no uncertain terms that the coaching staff may look to “tweak” the starting lineup in the coming days. But 48 minutes of game action later, the decision to make a change seemed far clearer, as Gentry told reporters that “more than likely” struggling small forward Michael Beasley would be making a move to the bench.

And as Kevin Zimmerman reported, Gentry once again reiterated the need for a change after Friday’s practice, suggesting that Beasley might “have more freedom” coming off the bench.

Gentry has already shuffled the lineup card once before this season, electing to insert Markieff Morris and Shannon Brown into the starting five before the team’s contest against the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 21. While the decision garnered immediate returns in Phoenix’s next two home games, Gentry’s squad has gone just 1-6 since its mini two-game home win streak and appears to be falling fast.

With P.J. Tucker’s availability (MCL sprain) over the next few games still unknown, it’s hard to say for sure if Beasley will in fact be moved to the pine before Saturday’s game. If he is, the logical move might be to re-insert Jared Dudley into the starting lineup. Although he struggled as a starter in his 11 games, a move to small forward might benefit the 6-foot-7 Dudley. On the flip side, it also appears the five-year veteran out of Boston College has grown accustomed to his bench role once again, scoring double digits in five of his last six games.

Any sort of move combined with Tucker’s injury could open the door for swingman Wes Johnson to receive a few more minutes of playing time. Johnson, who was acquired in a three-team deal back in July, has played in only eight of the Suns’ first 20 games in 2012-13. Because of Tucker’s emergence and the patience the team has attempted to show with Beasley, Johnson has found himself on the outside looking in so far with just 21 shot attempts on the year.

Regardless of what move Gentry does or doesn’t make Saturday, the Suns will have their work cut out for them if they are to snap their season-high five game losing streak.

While Phoenix hung tough Tuesday night in Memphis, the Clippers are certainly a horse of a different color. Like the Grizzlies, Vinny Del Negro’s squad ranks in the top 10 in defensive efficiency (99.2 points per 100 possessions) and offensively can beat you in a multitude of ways.

Although their pace (94.9 possessions per game) would suggest that they are more of a methodical, half-court team, with five-time All-Star Chris Paul (16.1 ppg and 9.5 apg) and two-time All Star Blake Griffin (17.6 ppg and 9.1 rpg) leading the way, the Clippers have proven to be the most exciting ticket in Tinseltown of late.

Los Angeles is ranked No. 4 in true shooting percentage (52.3), No. 5 in effective field goal shooting percentage (52.3), No. 6 in points per game (101.5) and No. 9 in assists per game (22.4). While Paul and Griffin are certainly the main attractions at Staples Center, the Clippers have a plethora of supporting actors.

To this point in the season, veteran guard Jamal Crawford has proven to be one of the best offseason acquisitions by any team in the league. Crawford, who signed a three-year deal worth $15.7 million over the summer, has earned every penny thus far. Despite playing on a team built around star power, Crawford leads the team in scoring (17.8 ppg) in less than 30 minutes of action. It may only be December, but he is quickly locking up the Sixth Man of the Year Award.

Along with Crawford, third-year guard Eric Bledsoe continues to blossom and has quickly become one of the league’s premiere backup point guards. In 18 minutes per game this season, Bledsoe is averaging 9.8 points, 2.7 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Along with a rise in numbers, Bledsoe appears to be more than the speedy, athletic specimen he came into the league as. Now in his third year, the former No. 18 overall pick looks far more confident with his jump shot this season (48.3 percent from the field) and has allowed Del Negro to confidently rest Paul for minutes at a time.

While Los Angeles has plenty of grace and athleticism on its roster, DeAndre Jordan continues to add a much-needed physical presence (6.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game) in the paint. His offense has also dramatically improved this season (10.2 points per game and 59.2 percent from the field), giving the Clippers yet another weapon to choose from.

Throw in veterans Caron Butler (1o.1 ppg and 2.5 rpg), Matt Barnes (8.5 ppg and 5.2 rpg) and Willie Green (6.2 ppg in 15 starts), and the Clippers are as deep a team as you will find in the Western Conference. And that doesn’t even include Chauncey Billups and former Sun Grant Hill, who combined have only appeared in three games this year due to injury.

The Clippers were embarrassed by the San Antonio Spurs in a second-round sweep last May and vowed to return a much more complete team. 18 games in, they appear to be the real deal, not only in their city but in the division and conference, as well.

Three Keys for Phoenix

Wake Up. It seems simple enough, but in their first matinee contest last Sunday in New York, the Suns dug themselves a hole with a rather listless start. In the first quarter against the Knicks, Phoenix turned the ball over nine times and played catch up the rest of the afternoon. If the Suns put together a similar start against another offensively proficient team like the Clippers, they’ll have no chance. Mark it down as a loss. While they didn’t win in Memphis that game can certainly serve as a blueprint for Saturday: start fast, start fast, start fast.

Bully Blake. By now almost everyone has seen the KIA commercial where Blake Griffin goes back in time to 1995 to talk to his younger self. At the end of the ad, Griffin tells the younger Blake jokingly to work on his free throw shooting. While comical for television purposes, Griffin’s free throw numbers are no laughing matter. For his career he’s just a shade under 60 percent from the charity stripe, and this season he’s not much better (62.9) from the line. While Griffin has shown no ill effects from the meniscus injury that kept him out of the Olympics or the ruptured bursa sac in his right elbow that hampered him for much of the preseason, if Saturday becomes a constant replay of “Lob City,” the Suns will have wasted their fouls. Phoenix has four competent big men in Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Luis Scola and Jermaine O’Neal (status unknown), so if Griffin is allowed to have his way in the paint, something’s wrong. Channing Frye proved to be a thorn in Griffin’s side through the years, because he didn’t allow the former NBA dunk champion to get easy buckets. With Frye out, that onus needs to fall on somebody else.

Shoot Better. That seems a little trite probably, but the Suns’ shooting woes have been a big part of their five-game losing streak. In each of their last five losses, the team has shot under 40 percent from the field. And 40 percent seems to be the magic number this season, as Phoenix has not won a single game in 2012-13 shooting below that mark. In fact, the team has not won since March 4 of last season shooting below 40 percent.