The Suns travel to Hollywood to battle the Clippers in a match-up of the Pacific Division's top two teams. Yes, you read that right.
Tonight, Eric Bledsoe will face his former team for the first time as the Phoenix Suns (18-11) face a tough road test against the LA Clippers (21-11). The Clippers are the leaders of the Pacific Division and are owners of the 4th-best record in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, the Suns have the second-best record in the Pacific and the 6th-best of all teams in the West.
Believe it or not, this game could very well prove to be an important division match-up with playoff implications down the road. Raise your hand if you thought you'd be saying that about this Suns team before the season began. Now take that hand, pat yourself on the back, and slap me across the face for thinking this team would be among the worst in the league.
Who: Phoenix Suns vs. LA Clippers
What: A division match-up between two teams vying for playoff berths
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
When: 8:30 PM AZ Time (7:30 PM PST/10:30 PM ET), December 30, 2013
Why: Eric Bledsoe faces Chris Paul and his old teammates for the first time since being traded to Phoenix.
The crux of the Clippers' offense starts and ends with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Paul averages nearly 20 points per game and is leading the league with 11.4 assists per game, the best mark of his career. Meanwhile, Griffin is the leading scorer on his team with nearly 22 points per game to go with 10.6 rebounds. He has upped his free throw shooting to 70% on the season and is arguably having the best year of his career. But all he can do is dunk so the Suns should just feel free to ignore him.
DeAndre Jordan is the Clippers' defensive enforcer in the paint, averaging 13.3 rebounds (second-best in the NBA) and 2.3 blocks per game (fourth-best in the NBA). Perennial 6th Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford is doing very Jamal Crawford-like things, providing a spark of the bench to the tune of an inefficient 16.8 points per game. Nonetheless, Crawford has proven throughout his career that he can go off on any given night and always commands defensive attention. Moreover, Crawford has become the Clippers' starting shooting guard since JJ Redick's injury a month ago.
Former Phoenix Suns fan favorite Jared Dudley (traded to the Clippers in the deal that brought Eric Bledsoe to Phoenix) hasn't had a great season thus far - he's only averaging 8.6 points and 2.1 rebounds on 43.6 FG% - but is playing better as of late. JJ Redick, who had been having a great season as a starter alongside Paul and Griffin, is still out as he recovers from a fractured bone in his shooting hand.
The rest of the Clippers roster features the likes of Darren Collison, Matt Barnes, Byron Mullens, Antawn Jamison, Ryan Hollins, and Stephen Jackson. An eclectic, ragtag group of players but not exactly a strong bench - the Clippers are 17th in the league in bench scoring with 30.7 points per game. The Suns, meanwhile, are 5th in the league with 37.7 points per game supplied by their bench mob.
- Eric Bledsoe vs. Chris Paul - Not only is Paul the best point guard in the NBA, but he's the player Bledsoe backed up for the last two years. Tonight, Bledsoe will face his former mentor for the fist time since the trade. He'll face a tough task as he tries to hold Paul in check (a nearly impossible task) but he must also pressure him on the other end to make him work on both halves of the court. This is the match-up to watch tonight.
- Goran Draic vs. Jamal Crawford - Crawford is taller than Dragic but is also one of the best ball-handlers in the NBA. Dragic will have to do his best to force tough shots from Crawford (which he has a habit of knocking down with regularity regardless of defense) and should look to attack him on offense. If Crawford starts the game on a strong note, Hornacek may consider moving PJ Tucker onto Crawford and letting Dragic "hide" on Dudley.
- Channing Frye vs. Blake Griffin - Channing can't expect to necessarily keep up offensively with Griffin, but he should nonetheless be capable of playing some strong post defense to limit his opportunities. He'll also have to run back on defense to limit the transition points "Lob City" thrives on.
- Miles Plumlee vs. DeAndre Jordan - In my opinion this is the most interesting match-up of the night. Both centers are hyper-athletic rim protectors with limited offensive games. Boxing out isn't really Plumlee's strong suit, but that's exactly what he'll need to do to keep Jordan, a prolific rebounder, off the boards.
- Bench vs. Bench - This is where the Suns have their biggest advantage. LA's bench is especially weak with Crawford starting, so the Morris brothers, Gerald Green, and Archie Goodwin must take advantage for the Suns to have a chance tonight. And if Ryan Hollins decides to put Dragic in a headlock again, I really hope one of them pulls a Michael Beasley (the only time I've ever advocated going "full Beasley").
This will be a tough test for the young Suns and they'll need to bring their absolute best on the road to have a shot at stealing this win. At the very least, let's hope they don't repeat their Golden State performance.
A win tonight would be a nice way to cap 2013, a roller-coaster of a year for the Suns that went from the lows of Lindsey Hunter and Michael Beasley to the highs of Ryan McDonough, Jeff Hornacek, Eric Bledsoe, and the surprise story of the NBA season.