PHOENIX — With still no timeline to track Eric Bledsoe’s seemingly imminent return, the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday supplied yet another reminder of how much the Suns (and their fans) miss this other franchise point guard.
"I wish I could say I know when he’s coming back," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said before an uneven performance ended in a 104-96 L.A. victory at US Airways Center.
The last time Bledsoe was in uniform, he injured his knee during the Suns’ rout of the Clippers (his old team) in Los Angeles. That was two months ago.
Since then, the Suns (now 35-25 and eighth in the Western Conference) have rallied around the gun-slinging efforts of Goran Dragic and Gerald Green, taking advantage of matchup advantages to generate big offense while a defensive decline has made it tricky to avoid sliding out of the playoff chase.
But against a loaded Clippers defense, Dragic and Green needed a combined 33 field-goal attempts to hit in nine shots.
With center Miles Plumlee out with a right knee sprain, the Suns had an even more difficult time finding clean looks. At least Plumlee’s commitment to rolling to the rim with enthusiasm kept a defender or two loitering in the paint.
And with only half of their dynamic point-guard duo available to harpoon the intentions of opposing help defenses, the Suns continue to have frequent interludes of ball-stopping offense.
"That’s part of the game, injuries," Dragic, who made 5 of 14 shots and scored 14 points, said. "Hopefully, Eric is coming back soon and, you know, no excuses."
So, while old pal Chris Paul and the Clippers were in town, Bledsoe was limited to 5-on-5 duty during a brief team scrimmage.
"I think he was a little sore," Hornacek said. "Not in his knee, just body-wise, after going in that scrimmage. We did go hard and that’s what I told him — ‘we can’t go long with our team … these guys have to play in the games and it’s a tough stretch for us, so go as hard as you can, push through everything, and if you get a little tired, try to keep going.’
"He did that, which was great to see. I think it’s a good sign that his muscles are sore, so it showed that he went hard, and that’s probably that next step in getting him back actually on the court playing."
Dealing with one of the conference’s top teams in this short-handed manner produced some unusual storylines:
With Plumlee in street clothes, the Suns opened the game with rookie Alex Len at center.
The fifth-overall selection in last summer’s draft, Len scored six points and grabbed six rebounds … all in the first half.
Opposed by the aggressive efforts of Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, Len demonstrated difficulty in catching the ball and maintaining control once he did nab it.
After holding the Clippers to 44 points in the opening half, the Suns surrendered a crippling 37 in the third quarter alone. Matt Barnes, who counts Phoenix among one of his many NBA pit stops, had 16 of his game-high 28 points in the period.
Barnes produced all 16 in the first 5:20 of the second half. For the game, he was 12 of 17 overall, including 4 of 7 from behind the 3-point line.
Most of Barnes’ third-quarter buckets came on uncontested jumpers when Suns’ stopper P.J. Tucker â attempting to get level with the location of the ball in help situations â lost track of what became the hottest player on the floor. Depending on rotational obligations, Tucker’s help commitment may have required (in theory) a teammate to hop out against the L.A. sharpshooter.
"I don’t think it was what he was doing," Tucker said of Barnes. "I think it was what we were doing. He made some tough ones, but we gave up a couple easy ones."
Veteran Suns guard Leandro Barbosa left Tuesday’s game with a fracture in his left hand.
The injury will not require surgery, and there is no timetable for a return by the "Brazilian Blur."
Barbosa wasn’t exactly tearing it up since his return to Phoenix, however, so the hyper-speed action of point guard Ish Smith should ramp up even more before Bledsoe returns.
Smith worked a pinch over 19 minutes vs. the Clippers, giving the Suns 5 points (on 2-of-3 shooting), 1 assist, 1 steal and 1 turnover.
For the record, the Clippers were playing without hotshot reserve guard Jamal Crawford (strained calf) and already were missing J.J. Redick.
The Clippers, now just a half-game ahead of the ninth-place Memphis Grizzlies, have a night off before the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder roll into Phoenix.
They’ll be in Oakland to tangle with the Golden State Warriors on Sunday and have to play the Clippers in L.A. the following night.