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.
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.
A weekly review, a look at the teams defense as of late, quote of the week, 2014 NBA Draft Update, and a preview of the week ahead...
Every week we are learning more and more about the Phoenix Suns (18-11) as they continue to evolve in different ways right before our eyes. They are not the bottom feeder most thought they would be three months ago. They are not Championship contenders that the bandwagon drivers might proclaim. Just calling it like it is; they are one of the best 5-8 teams in the Western Conference.
As the pendulum swings and the season grows long it will become more apparent whether they are closer to the No. 5 seed or the No. 8 seed.
One thing is for certain so far this season and that is the coaching staff is coaching them like they have something to prove every night and because of that they are able to avoid jumping the shark.
They took care of business against two teams they should beat, which was not the case just a few weeks ago, and are getting respect from the other teams in the league. At the beginning of the season teams thought of the Suns as an easy win, but now they are preparing for them like other playoff teams and giving them their best shot. That is what happens when you are a good team. The target is on your back.
That has become evident with the recent defensive production.
Early in the season the team was respectable on the defensive end, but ironically they were not winning at the current they are with the defense under-performing. Defense wins Championships is not a common expression without reason. Every team that wins at the highest level has the ability to make multiple stops down the stretch of important games to win.
Recently they have struggled to get stops and on the other hand teams are struggling to stop them. The team is relying on a strong offense that is potent with the eight best overall shooting team (46.1%), the tenth best three-point shooting team (37.3%), and scoring 103.6 points per game good for 10th in the NBA today.
They have the ninth best pace (97.9) and offensive rating (105.6) on the season as well. This is not the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, but they are lethal in their own right forcing teams out of their game-plans to try and outscore them.
Will the offense be enough to remain a Top 5-6 team in the deep, tough Western Conference? Time will tell, but the defense is not something to be ignored. One way or another it will play a factor in how long the Suns will be able to play at this high of a quality.
Defense was never the foundation of this team, but it has been one of the ways they were winning games early in the season. As of late they are showing some chinks in the armor giving up 100+ points in seven of the past nine games. It has not hindered their winning ways as they have won seven out of the last nine games, but being one dimensional has never been a recipe for late season or post-season success. The exclamation point was added on when the Warriors dropped 115 points on them, a season high, in a season worst 29 point blowout loss.
Quote of the Week
We tried that before and it didn't work," Coach Jeff Hornacek on the team trying to sleepwalk through bad teams. They did not do that this week.
2014 NBA Draft Update
Surrogate Watch continues and the Suns have three first round picks with the current projections, none of which are in the lottery. A slight change of pace from pre-season projections. Here is the update on how the three picks look right now:
Minnesota Timberwolves (15-15) -- No. 14 Overall (Pick stays in Minnesota based on Protections) Here the T-Wolves address their shooting void on the perimeter and add in a player in James Young, freshman Kentucky, that can score points in bunches.
Washington Wizards (13-14) -- No. 19 Overall (Pick goes to Phoenix based on Protections) Adreian Payne, senior Michigan State, is one of the better stretch-four prospects that have come along in a while. He took longer to develop than others, but he can shoot, defend, block shots, and has improved as a post scorer on the block.
Phoenix Suns (18-11) -- No. 23 Overall (Pick stays in Phoenix based on Protections) With their own pick the Suns add another raw athletic talent on the perimeter in UCLA freshman Zach LaVine. He has been one of the most exciting prospects in the open court and has just scratched the surface as an all-around offensive weapon.
Indiana Pacers (22-5) -- No. 29 Overall (Pick goes to Phoenix based on Protections) Draft and stash here. Too many young fellas on the roster as is so Serbian point guard Vasilije Micic fits the bill. Tough, pass-first point guard that plays the game the right way.
Keep following along here to get updates and information on the 2014 NBA Draft Class and more.
News & Notes
Previewing the Week Ahead:
Monday, December 30th @ Los Angeles Clippers (21-11)
Thursday, January 2nd vs. Memphis Grizzlies (13-16)
Saturday, January 4th vs. Milwaukee Bucks (6-24)
This week provides a good challenge for the Suns as they play the Division leading Clippers and their high powered offense for the first time. A win over the Clippers puts the Suns .03% behind them for the lead in the Pacific Division and just one full game behind them in the standings. Pretty amazing considering the pre-season expectations. Their offense is so potent when it is clicking because of the ability to distribute the ball and carve up a defense. They are 4th in the NBA in assists per game, primarily because of Chris Paul, and can dissect a defense with their passing.
With the way the Suns have been playing defense as of late they will need a better sense of discipline and execution on that end of the floor.
While the Grizzlies are not the Grizzlies of last year, they are still one of the more stingy points allowed defenses in the league giving up 97.3 points per game (6th best) even thought the rest of the statistics do not back them up. They are average on the glass, average defending the three-point line, and average defending field goal attempts in general. While they are three games under .500 they are not one of the "teams they should beat" on the surface.
...then there are the Bucks. At the very least Giannis Antetokounmpo will be fun to watch.
Swingman Jared Dudley is the third consecutive "former Suns starting small forward" to join the Los Angeles Clippers in the offseason, following Matt Barnes and Grant Hill. ClipsNation blogger Steve Perrin brings us up to speed on Jared's transition to a star-studded team.
Guard/forward Jared Dudley was a big-time fan favorite in Phoenix, so much that hopefully he won't ultimately symbolize the "bad" Phoenix Suns because he was their most quoted, recognizable player during the darkest Suns days since the 1980s. To be synonymous with bad Suns basketball would be a major tarnish on what was otherwise a wonderfully honest and fair player who put the team's PR on his back for a few years.
Now Jared is in Los Angeles, playing for a Clippers team fighting for home court advantage in the playoffs -- and fighting to hold off his former team from streaking right past them in the standings. The Clippers (21-11) vs. Suns (18-11) is a battle of 11-loss teams boasting two of the best 8 records in the entire NBA. His role is what we always thought JD should have been - a 3-and-D guy who is, at best, the 5th best player on a contender.
Let's check in with ClipsNation.com editor Steve Perrin to see how Duds is fitting in there in Cali, and what's up with megastar Chris Paul in the wake of Eric Bledsoe's trade.
Bright Side: We all loved us some Dudley in Phoenix. He became a cult hero during the Suns' 2010 playoff run and was a fan favorite because he was so good with the public and the media. How does Dudley's persona play in LA?
Steve Perrin, ClipsNation.com: I quipped in pre-season that even if the Clippers aren't successful on the court this season, they're going to have several representatives on the NBA's All-Interview team. With Dudley and J.J. Redick joining the likes of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and the incomparable Doc Rivers as the coach, this team is astoundingly polished and well-spoken. It doesn't get you a whole lot of wins (unless you want to equate it with basketball IQ) but it is definitely a welcome development for the media covering the team. DeAndre Jordan and Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford are all charming dudes as well. So Duds fits right in with a pretty cerebral, super-articulate group. Hopefully it does indeed translate into some good things in terms of really grasping Rivers' more complex defensive schemes as well, but if nothing else, Dudley can clearly explain why he's missing so many shots.
Bright Side: I see Dudley is off to his usual slow start. He always shoots worse in the first half than the second half of the season. Have the Clippers fans shown patience with Duds? Overall, what do the Clippers think of our latest favorite former Sun?
SP: That was a transition up above. Did you catch that? As you are fully aware, some fans are more patient than others. It's funny, I keep hearing about this "usual slow start" for Dudley, but looking at his career splits, December has been one of the strongest months for him over the course of his carer. So if this is indeed just a slow start, it's lasting longer than usual. Dudley has been dealing with a pretty severe case of tendinitis in his knee most of the season -- he probably should have taken some time off, but Barnes has been hurt most of the season (he just got back a few games ago). To make matters worse, rookie Reggie Bullock twisted an ankle just after Barnes was hurt. So I've been wondering if Dudley would benefit from some rest, but it simply hasn't been an option so far as he's been the only semi-healthy three on the team. Dudley had a four game stretch a week or so ago where he hit .564 from the field and made 13-23 from deep, the Clippers won all four games easily and we thought "Yes, finally, this is how it's supposed to be." In the four games since, he's 1-12 from deep, and we're right back where we were, wondering what exactly it is that he does at an NBA level. So yeah, as of now, it seems like he's kind of a 3D guy, who can't hit threes and isn't very good on D, but the few times that he was actually effectively stretching the floor, things were really humming for the team. So hopefully this is just part of a slow start, because the Clippers could use him.
Bright Side: Has Chris Paul gotten even better this year than ever? His numbers are up across the board, though his shooting percentages are slightly down. Is the bigger workload sustainable over the season, or will he wear himself out?
When Doc Rivers was asked in the pre-season if he was going to try to keep Chris Paul's minutes down, he basically said "No, he's my best player, I'm going to play him. He's young." After last season, where Vinny Del Negro did as well as any coach in the league this side of Gregg Popovich at keeping his stars fresh only to have them swept out of the playoffs in the first round, I'm not against increased minutes. Besides, while 35.3 minutes per game is up from last year, it's still the second lowest minutes average of his career. Doc does have Chris doing two things differently and they make a huge difference: he's got him playing at a faster pace, and he's got him looking for his own shot more frequently. Contrary to their high-flying Lob City reputation, the CP3 Clippers have really been a slow-paced affair, 17th in the league in pace last season and 27th the season before that. That's all on Paul, who has always preferred to walk the ball up the court. To his credit, Rivers has convinced CP3 to go against his nature some and push the pace -- the Clippers are the seventh fastest team this season and are getting a lot of easy baskets in transition. And speaking of Paul's nature, he's a pass-first point guard to a fault, and deeply prefers to involve his teammates rather than shoot himself -- which is all well and good, except for the fact that Paul is frequently the team's best option on offense. So what jumps out at me is the 15 shots per 36 minutes he's taking, which is his highest level since 08-09 in New Orleans.
Bright Side: The Clippers appear to be loaded, especially when Redick comes back to full strength. Do you see the Clipper e-Clips-ing their best season yet?
Oh sure, the Suns guy with an eclipse pun. Hope that doesn't come back to haunt you.
I predicted 60 wins for the Clippers heading into the season which would be a new franchise record. Their obviously not on that pace at 21-11, but there are a few reasons to suspect that they might be primed for a strong run in the coming months. Redick's absence has certainly been a major blow -- he is a key component to the motion offense with his tireless off-ball movement and the offense struggled for a few weeks when he went out before they found their footing again. Secondly, the defense began the season as one of the worst in the NBA, but has been among the best over the last month, which seems to indicate that they took some time to really embrace Rivers' schemes, but that now they're getting it. If they can put that solid defense together with the high-powered offense upon Redick's return, the team could really have a solid run in 2014.
Bright Side: What's been the Clippers biggest achilles heel so far this season? What would the Suns need to do to beat the Clips on Monday night?
The team's biggest problem frankly has been cold shooting. Rivers made a concerted effort to add shooting after he was hired, trading for Redick and Dudley, signing Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens. But the Clippers are shooting a much worse percentage from deep this season than they did last season (.332 vs. .358), and jump shots in general just haven't been falling (except in the case of Blake Griffin, somewhat ironically). So the Suns should probably pack the lane and dare the Clippers to beat them from the perimeter. When those shots are falling, the Clippers are very, very tough to beat. But they've had far too many games this season where they can't buy a jumper, and if you catch them on one of those nights, they're very beatable.
Thanks for bringing us up to speed in LaLa Land, Steve!
Check Clips Nation later today to see how I answered 5 questions on the Suns.