Suns lose big lead, game, chance to rise

PHOENIX — Before the Suns whiffed on Wednesday night’s opportunity to embrace standings-related prosperity, coach Jeff Hornacek spent a few moments assessing the weapons assembled by the Los Angeles Clippers.

"That’s a pretty wicked combination," Hornacek said even though the Clips were working without a couple of important snipers.

Despite L.A.’s considerable remaining firepower, a wicked bad combination of variables was required for the Suns to register a 112-108 loss to the Clippers on a night when the Memphis Grizzlies opened the door to the seventh seed in Western Conference.

With the Grizzlies having lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Suns tossed away a 17-point, third-quarter lead in their eighth-to-last game of the regular season.

"We told the guys, again, it’s like a broken record," Hornacek said. "We tell them all the time, we can’t have a two- to three-minute lull against these top teams. We’re too casual."

To pour gasoline on this lack of attention to detail, they often go sideways in reading situations.

This approach was the gateway to five fourth-quarter turnovers.

And the problem can reach calamity levels when their most reliable employee is off.

That, of course, is season-long catalyst Goran Dragic, whose 2 of 11 shooting performance was somewhat mitigated by eight assists and an 11-of-12 night from the free throw line.

Clippers 112, Suns 108

Point guard running mate Eric Bledsoe shot the ball well (6 of 9), but committed five turnovers, including a couple of brutal miscues in the fourth quarter.

The Clippers, demonstrating that Phoenix doesn’t have a patent on playing two point guards at the same time for extended minutes, were treated to 43 points from its tandem. That included 23 from Darren Collison, who made 9 of 16 shots while teammate Chris Paul was bricking in at 6 of 17.

Another peculiar issue for the Suns was provided by the usually stellar Morris twins, who hit L.A. for a combined 25 points in the opening half and a grand total of two in the second.

That was double the second-half production of bench buddy Gerald Green, who provided 14 over the first two quarters.

Additional Suns anomalies included an edge over the Clippers in paint points (42-40) and rebounding (38-36). At least it wasn’t all bad.

So, with statistical vagaries lurking all over the arena, the Suns (44-31) settled back into the ninth seed because tiebreaker issues put them behind two teams (Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks) with identical records.

With only seven games left in the regular season — including dates with the Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs — losing to a Clippers team forced to play without Jamal Crawford, Danny Granger and J.J. Redick is painful.

Although Wednesday’s game lacked a playoff atmosphere at the outset, the repercussions were elevated by the standings.

"That’s what it is," Hornacek said. "It’s the final push, it’s just like the playoffs. These teams we’re playing are all the same teams that are either fighting for a position or to get in, in terms of Dallas and Memphis. You have to play every one of these games like if you lose, you could be out of the playoffs."

Beyond the obvious quest to convert this season’s culture upgrade into the franchise’s first playoff series since 2010, this closing effort may help shape the creation of the next great Suns team.

Which players accrue most of their numbers during the middle of the season or the middle of games? Which players can be counted on when the game or season is on the line and how much loot should be offered to retain them when their contracts expire?

"Ryan’s probably judging everybody on how they’re playing under this kind of pressure," Hornacek said in reference to first-year general manager Ryan McDonough. "As coaches, we’re trying to find that guy out on the court.

"It’s always an evaluation process," Hornacek said. "It’s always that way unless you win the championship. Ultimately, you want to be the best team in the league."

Wednesday’s audition wasn’t exactly promising. After taking a 104-99 lead on a Bledsoe layup with 3:50 remaining, the Suns managed to get three more shots.

They were 31 percent from the field in the quarter.

"After this season, if we don’t make the playoffs," Dragic said, "for sure we’re going to look back and say ‘why did you lose against L.A. Lakers over there, they blew us out.’ Then we had this game almost in our pockets. But now is not the time to think like that because we still have to have our confidence up and play those last seven games."

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