It goes without saying that the any team is different without their star player, but the Los Angeles Clippers (32-12) sans Chris Paul have a lot of ability, but little direction. In the first two match-ups against the Phoenix Suns (15-28) the All-Star point guard put up 16.5 points, 12 assists, and 3.5 steals per game in two routes.
Without him it was a grind for four quarters.
Early Game Success
The first quarter had a lot of things to like as the Suns forced four early turnovers that led to eight points. That energized the team as well as did the presence of Suns great Charles Barkley and the TNT crew. They did not want to get embarrassed on National TV so despite coming in on a back-to-back they grinded this out with solid defense and effort.
That energy translated to the second quarter as they took a 35-8 lead (proof below) on the Clippers. Everything possible is being give to new interim head coach Lindsey Hunter including knowledgeable assistants, player support, and scoreboard malfunctions.
Getting To The Line
A major part of the Suns ability to hang in the game was their knack for getting to the foul line. For the game they shot (26-37) which was eleven more attempts than the Clippers. They were the aggressor led by Goran Dragic with a career-high 14 trips to the line on the night going 11-14.
Grant Came Back... Home
Early in the game former Suns wing Grant Hill came in and played exactly as you would expect him to against a young team that he knows pretty well. He toyed with opposing wings Michael Beasley and Shannon Brown taking charges, making passes, and plays on the defensive end. It was nice to see Hill back, healthy, and on the court.
The fans of the Valley showed their appreciation with a loud cheer and nearly unanimous standing ovation.
The Bottom Line
A Chris Paul-less offense is tough to watch. On the season the Clippers average 101.5 points per game as a team, good for seventh in the league.
Without Paul the team sputtered late with miscues, turnovers, and a lack of a clear direction. Blake Griffin was not the focal point of the offense that was erratic and lost. Jamal Crawford was able to get up some shots, but they were not efficient.
Three brutal possessions (two shot-clock violations and a bad early shot by Shannon Brown) allowed the Clippers to cut the lead to 86-85 with 26.9 to go behind a Crawford three. He then proceed to clank his first free-throw moments later allowing Brown to leak out for a clear path foul. Two free-throws and the ball. Game.
In the end the Hunter regime proved consistent with a second straight win behind that defensive effort he spoke about in his news conference. The Suns pulled it out late with a 93-88 victory.
The Phoenix Suns (14-28) finally got some good news to mix in with all of the negative backlash this week both local and national. They took their show on the road knocking off the Sacramento Kings 106-96 for only their 4th road win on the season and now they come right back just 24 hours later to host the Pacific Division leading Los Angeles Clippers (32-11).
In the long arguous marathon that is an NBA season every team has their fair share of back-to-back situations.
This is one of those situations after being on the road last night. On the season the team has played in eight total back-to-back games going 1-7 overall on the back end. If I looked at every team in the league I am sure there are very few that win the second game on a back-to-back especially with travel involved. The only win was at Chicago to end their last road trip.
Granted this is a new coaching staff with an energized team that may come together in the aftermath of all of the moves and drama that was this past week, a back-to-back doesn't get any easier.
To a finer point this is another game against a divisional opponent. Through the first six games (2-4) the Suns fared well against the Kings (2-0), but have dropped every game to the other three who have winning records. Looking at the schedule -- including tonight -- there are 10 more games against their divisional foes. An opportunity to salvage some pride from one of the worst seasons in franchise history.
The last time the Suns finished under .500 in the Pacific Division was the 2003-2004 season. At this point they would need to go 6-4 or better to avoid that dubious distinction this season.
(Recent) History Lesson
This season the teams have locked up twice. Once in Los Angeles (99-117 loss) and once in Phoenix (77-103 loss), both with very similar results.
In each game Griffin and Crawford scored over 20 points while Paul directed the offense with a double-double. Those three combined with great defense, causing turnovers, and running up-and-down the floor were the Suns demise.
Head-to-Head (past four seasons)
Suns: 103.57 PPG (10 wins)
Clippers: 100.28 PPG (4 wins)
Blake Griffin vs. Suns: 21.7 PPG 10.0 RPG 52.1 FG% (10 games)
Jamal Crawford vs. Suns: 16.6 PPG 4.2 APG 43.4 FG% 31.7 3PT% (25 games)
Michael Beasley vs. LAC: 20.2 PPG 5.2 RPG 53.8 FG% 51.6 3PT% (11 games)
One thing about Michael Beasley is that he has always played well against the Clippers, including this year when he came out like a house on fire torching the Clippers in the first half of the first meeting. He tapered off in the second and the Suns lost, but he has the ability to put up points against this club.
PG - Goran Dragic v. Eric Bledsoe
SG - Jared Dudley v. Willie Green
SF - P.J. Tucker v. Caron Butler
PF - Luis Scola v. Blake Griffin
C - Marcin Gortat v. DeAndre Jordan
Potential Suns Inactives: Jermaine O'Neal (Undisclosed Injury/Illness)
This season Blake Griffin has become a much better all-around offensive threat and it has showed in the two games this season as he scored 23.5 PPG on 62.1% shooting from the field. He is not going against the best defensive front court in the league, but in Luis Scola he faces a frustrating opponent.
Scola is an aggitator that can get under his opponents skin. Just ask DeMarcus Cousins, Carlos Boozer, and, well Blake Griffin.
In order for the Suns to have a competitive edge in this game Scola has to use his fouls wisely, not allow Griffin to score as easy as he has, and put him on the free-throw line where he is shooting 60.3% (59.9% on the road) career. This season he has improved to 65.4% (63.8% on the road) career, which is a improvement, but still very low for a contact player like Griffin.
Interesting Stat: 17 and 12
The Clippers speed up every team and get them out of their comfort zone, that is why they are so good this season. With the Suns in particular they force an average of 17 turnovers per game and rack up 12 steals along the way. Both are above the season average for the Clippers so those perimeter defenders lick their chops when the Suns come up on the schedule.
Meaningless Stat: .500
For his career as a head coach Vinny del Negro has been .500 (7-7) dating back to his time as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. There is that.