The night started off well. Everyone was happy to see each other. Alvin Gentry joked with the local media before the game, quipped that he had "eight great years here... I was here nine, remember."
And it ended well, with the deep bench scrapping and clawing to cut the big Clippers lead to 1 with 38.6 seconds left. A 30% full stadium cheered louder than I've heard since the Lakers game last spring. Hornacek's ragtag lineups didn't ever give up, and found a way to get the crowd on their feet, screaming to close out the game.
Former Suns forward Louis Amundson got a nice dunk to give the Clips a late 3-point lead and then Kendall Marshall got blocked on a drive. After getting hacked on the fast break, the Clippers' Willie Green made a couple of free throws to ice the game.
But at least it was interesting, which is more than can be said of last year. The Suns did not give up - finding a way to make it tight at the end, even with the deep bench.
Jeff Hornacek was still experimenting with lineups tonight. Before the game he talked of the twin tower look he started with Plumlee and Gortat.
"We'll find out a little tonight," he said, of whether Plumlee can play the four position. "Probably the best lineup for [Plumlee] is at the 5 spot with a stretch guy. But we'll play several teams with two big guys, so we have to find out if he can play the 4. If not him, then can we move Gortat to the 4? Or if Alex Len is in the game, can we move one to the 4. We'll just have to see how it's going to work."
Chris Paul had two assists on his first two possessions, while the Suns worked a two-man game to expose Byron Mullens in the post. Dragic took the ball on the side to pass into Plumlee in the post.
Paul accounted for nearly all the Clippers points (3 assists, 8 points), possibly to make a point to Eric Bledsoe that he can still dominate the younger player, on the way to a 17-7 early lead that didn't look as close as the score. The Suns, as you can guess, came out tentative rather than aggressive, like they will need to be this season.
DeAndre Jordan had two early blocks to help the Clippers extend their lead, making the Suns tentative in the paint despite starting two 6'11" guys.
Paul had 13 points and 3 assists, the Clips with a big lead, before Eric Bledsoe was able to steal the ball away from Paul for a breakaway playup. The whole first 8 minutes felt like the Paul vs. Bledsoe show, where Paul reminded Bledsoe who was boss.
Loouuuuuu and Duds were on the court for the last few minutes of the first quarter, making plays exactly as Suns fans remember them. Lou with a good rebound in traffic, Dudley with a second-effort breakaway finish.
And then Shannon Brown stepped in, and immediately got himself into a dribble tantrum where he dribbled around the wing, into a defenders area, and then took a contested two. Luckily, Lou fouled him on the way back down.
Amundson committed three fouls in his first three minutes, by the way. Just by being Lou.
Jared Dudley had a really good
exorcism first half by scoring every time he got the ball. His only miss, a fastbreak layup in traffic, he got his own o-board and put it back in. His five makes included a very long two and a pair of threes on the wing.
"They're going to have to box out," Hornacek said of his guys. "A guy like Miles, in practice does the same thing a lot of guys do - if you don't box them out, they get the rebound. He's actually made our guys box out, get used to doing that. So hopefully we'll keep that up."
The Suns did not keep that up early in this game, getting outrebounded 11-4 in the first 10 minutes, and 26-12 deficit by halftime.
"You would think that after 3-4 exhibition games," Hornacek said of the rotation. "Guys would separate themselves. But every guy that gets in there has done well."
Except for tonight, when the Clippers played like they really wanted to play basketball, at a level of execution the Suns had not seen yet this preseason. Very few Suns players looked good in the first half against the Clippers. Outrebounded 26-12. Out-blocked 6-1. Out assisted 15-10. And outscored 63-47.
To be fair, the Suns played a lot of weird lineups that they hadn't tried before, while the Clippers top 6 players got regular minutes and then some. So there's that. The top six Clips played at least 13 minutes apiece, while only two Suns reached that mark (Plumlee and Bledsoe).
The second half was a different story altogether. It's as if the Suns and Clippers decided to play entirely differently at halftime. The Clippers came out with the same lineup but were flat, while the Suns turned up the effort behind Bledsoe and scrambled into a comeback that saw the Clips only score 3 points in 8 minutes while the Suns cut the 16-point lead to 3.
Then Chris Paul woke back up and scored 4 points to steady the Clips as the quarter drew to a close. Archie Goodwin switched onto Paul after that, but Goodwin got the steal as Paul tried to shake and bake the taller player. Guessing Paul won't let that happen again.
On the next possession, Paul dipped and weaved into a great alley oop to DeAndre Jordan for a 7 point Clipper lead. By the end of three, it was back to 10 points and the Clippers never allowed the score to get any closer as Jordan stayed out there into the fourth and then Chris Paul came back at the 8 minute mark.
The Suns did not help themselves by playing lineups that just didn't work together. There were so many substitutions that it was hard to keep everything straight.
When Kendall Marshall came in, you knew the game was a "tryout" for minutes the rest of the way. He teamed up with Goodwin, Green, Plumlee and Marcus Morris. And then Kravtsov comes in. Where's Christmas?
Crowds love breakaway dunks even more than anticipated threes. Plumlee and Green both got big dunks in the 4th, eliciting bigger cheers than any other play tonight. Let's hope the Suns can have more of these nights - at least exciting the crowd that stays late into a big loss to a good team. That would be a step up from last year.
It's not often that a preseason game is something to look forward to, but that's exactly what we have here.
Clearly in an effort to rest up for the undefeated Suns tonight in Phoenix, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Matt Barnes all sat out a loss to Sacramento Kings last night while former Suns Jared Dudley and Louis Amundson scored 4 points between them in 39 minutes of play.
While it's true that all those guys took last night off, it doesn't mean they are gearing up for the Suns either. Preseason is a time for experimenting, and for giving minutes to guys who won't see them once the regular season starts. Teams are looking for someone(s) to step up to play a bigger role than originally envisioned. Preseason is also about staying healthy, as a quick check of the league's injury report can attest.
Expect the unexpected. It's still the preseason after all.
In three preseason games, the Suns have started 3 different shooting guards (Eric Bledsoe/Goran Dragic, Shannon Brown, Archie Goodwin) and 3 different small forwards (P.J. Tucker, Marcus Morris and Gerald Green). The point guard spot has seen Goran Dragic start twice, while Eric Bledsoe started once.
Looks like it's time to start experimenting with different front court lineups in the starting roles. My guess is that Hornacek will go with a big man lineup against the high-flying Clippers, and will start Miles Plumlee or Alex Len at C with Channing Frye sliding into the starting PF spot for a night in his first home game of the season,* or Gortat will shift to PF as he has recently requested for a chance of pace.
*It's also possible that Hornacek will wait to bring Frye into the game as a backup so he can get his own round of applause outside the hoopla of the starting lineup intros.
Who knows what the Clippers want to do, but my guess is that all the guys who sat last night will play tonight. That includes 2 All-Stars - Griffin and Paul, a shot-blocking extraordinaire in Jordan and another former Suns player Matt Barnes.
With the Clippers liberally sitting guys out, it wouldn't be a surprise to see former Suns Jared Dudley and Louis Amundson ride the pine the whole game after playing last night. Why play a back-to-back when you don't have to?
Here's hoping they each at least get a cameo at some point. Certainly, each will get an ovation of appreciation from loyal, classy Suns fans.
I would call this a "special" matchup rather than a "key" matchup. It's preseason, after all.
It makes sense to start Eric Bledsoe against his mentor, Chris Paul, at point guard tonight. After two years of beating each other up in practice, this is Bledsoe's first chance to play competitive basketball against Paul and prove he's a starting caliber point guard in this league.
It's better to get this game over with before the games count, too. Bledsoe is likely to be really hyped, probably translating into a lot of steals and rebounds but also turnovers and bricked shots.
Bledsoe's turnovers seem to be more about over-passing to unsuspecting teammates than lazy play, and against the Clippers he might try too many alley-oops that the Suns just aren't ready to convert.
I'm sure there will be some quotes out of the visiting locker room before and after the game tonight, as former head coach Alvin Gentry returns to US Airways Center for the first time since being unceremoniously ousted last season by the Suns after a 13-28 start. Gentry is a noted performer for the media, so he will certainly make some obligatory benign comments for local papers with the outside chance of a zinger or two.
Jeff Hornacek still has 17 players to rotate. With so many of relatively equal talent/skill combinations, it's not yet possible to write anyone off besides the rehabbing Malcolm Lee.
In three games, Channing Frye sat out once (and since said he was told he's playing from now on). Also sitting a game are Shannon Brown, Dionte Christmas, Viacheslav Kravstov and James Nunnally. Four of those five acquitted themselves with 10+ point scoring game to offset the DNP. Only Nunnally has seen the numbers really crunch his opportunity.
What will happen tonight? Is it possible, or practical for that matter, for Hornacek to narrow his rotation down? He's played 16, 16 and 13 players in the three games.
As I wrote above, this figures to be a big game for Eric Bledsoe and I would expect Hornacek to give Bledsoe plenty of minutes tonight. Bledsoe loves to play basketball and will likely get 35 minutes a night this season for the Suns so why not start now, against his mentor? Paul, on the other hand, has nothing prove so he will likely play less than 20 minutes, with the remainder going to his new backup - Darren Collison.
Everyone plays with lineups in the preseason, so why not start the gifted sixth man Crawford? I have no idea what the Clips will do here. For the Suns, Dragic barely played on Sunday so it figures he will get some time tonight in a lineup next to Bledsoe. It's interesting that they've still barely shared the court this preseason.
Despite some hot shooting by Gerald Green this preseason, it's still my guess that Marcus Morris has the small forward spot in hand. The Suns need someone who can make 3-point shots when Dragic and Bledsoe are on the floor. That could be Green, but I'd guess it Mook's job to lose. He's younger and potentially a better NBA player. P.J. Tucker will be the first backup off the bench, and may end up playing more minutes than Mook overall.
Gortat has mentioned a few times that he'd like to play big with another of his 7-foot teammates, and that he'd love to try the PF spot when that happens. The problem with this is that Gortat has no game outside the paint, so the middle will be clogged when this happens unless the other big is Channing Frye. My guess is that Frye will come in the game later, so he can get his own applause outside the lineup intros. Maybe even just a minute or two into the game.
Miles Plumlee has been a revelation so far this preseason. He appears to have a future similar to Jeff Foster (former dirt worker in Indiana) or Louis Amundson (former Suns fan fave). Expect Hornacek to reward him with a start either tonight or sometime soon before the season starts.
Who cares? All I want is a feel-good, entertaining game featuring a lot of fast breaks and dunks. Whoever wins this game has no more than momentary bragging rights. Preseason.