PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns now have provided enough material for us to pull dangerously close to acknowledgment of the season’s first overstatement game.
By dropping the Los Angeles Clippers 93-90 in a Thursday night bar fight at US Airways Center, the Suns may have saved their postseason hopes … well, for now.
With three tricky games still separating them from a playoff seed, knocking off the Clips lifted the 33-30 Suns from ninth to eighth in the Western Conference standings, thanks to a tiebreaker nod over the similarly 33-30 Utah Jazz. With the Denver Nuggets rolling in for a Saturday afternoon date, it’s not exactly time for cartwheels and fireworks. Thanks to several goose-bump moments in their throw-down with the Clips, it just sort of seemed like it for a while.
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So, with overstatement on hold, we still should credit the Suns for surviving what easily could be classified as a statement game.
And the statement has something to do with this team — the one that had provoked the notion of an early pick in the 2012 NBA Draft — having too much heart to be dismissed.
And now, a few words from Robin Lopez.
“People have called Phoenix soft in the past,” the Suns backup center said. “Tonight, we did a good job being the aggressor.”
OK, so Robin sort of twisted this one into an understatement game.
The recipient for a large portion of this aggression was Clippers power forward Blake Griffin, the guy who dunks while jumping over economy automobiles. He also doesn’t mind taking a moment to stare at opponents that wander near the vicinity of his violent slams. It’s this bonus showmanship that has propelled Griffin from entertaining athletic marvel to, perhaps, the one NBA player who may be more unpopular with his peers than a hefty reduction in the players’ take-home percentage of basketball-related income.
Having that on the table, we now rewind to the 6:14 mark of Thursday’s fourth quarter, with the Clippers holding a 77-74 lead. Mere seconds earlier, a steal by L.A. guard Mo Williams was on the cusp of becoming another hammer job by Griffin, who was sitting on the same 14 points he provided his team in the first quarter.
The only impediment to ending this scoring drought was the closing speed of the 7-foot Lopez. When it was time to rise, a hard foul by the Phoenix big man sent Griffin to the deck and the referees to the replay monitor.
“I tried to go for the ball,” Lopez said of his foul on Griffin. “I tried to go for his arms.”
Well, he kind of missed. By the way, according to NBA rules, the head is not part of the ball. But hard-foul accuracy can be a little tricky.
“It was what it was,” Lopez said. “My job is to protect the rim.”
Robin also mentioned that Griffin shoots a much lower percentage from 15 feet away from the rim than from 15 feet off the ground.
For Griffin, absorbing hard fouls seems to come with whatever he’s established as his job description.
“It’s not the first time,” Griffin said of such rough treatment. “I don’t think it’s malicious or trying to hurt anybody, but after a while it gets pretty frustrating … only you’ve got to keep playing.”
Griffin, who came over to USAC with a Clippers assistant coach for a one-man shootaround Thursday morning, made only one shot outside his five-foot comfort zone after everyone showed up Thursday night. The rim-bending efforts of the first quarter occurred through turnover-enabled transition plays instead of a lack of focus in the Suns’ half-court defense.
Anyway, when the referees’ replay-monitoring ended, Lopez took his flagrant-2 foul to the locker room, and Phoenix guard Shannon Brown took a technical free throw awarded after Williams approached Lopez with at least the appearance of bad intent.
After Brown converted, Griffin missed the second of his two free throws, Clippers forward Kenyon Martin snagged the rebound, and Chris Paul eventually made an 18-foot jumper that made it 80-75 in favor of L.A.
With Lopez unwittingly providing an emotional boost to his teammates and the home crowd, the Suns kept fighting until the Clippers’ record fell to 39-24, and their chase of L.A.’s other team took a half-game standings hit.
For perspective, we now go to Suns head coach Alvin Gentry.
“Golly, what a game, huh?” Gentry said. “It was a gut-check game, and we did everything we could to pull it out.”
Doing everything included limiting Griffin to zero field goals and only three shots in the final three quarters. Also doing work was the tag team point guard defense of Steve Nash and Sebastian Telfair against Paul.
Paul did shake Nash now and then, but didn’t rattle or roll the 38-year-old. Telfair’s battle looked considerably more personal, contributing to Paul making just 6 of 19 shots from the field. Nash and Telfair combined to make 7 of 11 shots and an equal split of 26 points.
Phoenix was led in scoring by Jared Dudley, whose 18 points included a three-pointer that pulled the Suns to within three (67-64) late in the third after L.A. had built an eight-point lead and threatened to create playoff-threatening space. By the way, Dudley’s bomb arrived a minute or so after he clobbered Griffin during a loose-ball scrum.
“You need to make a stand, to a certain point, within the grasp of the game,” Dudley said. “I thought we did that and offensively we didn’t let it get us down. It shows us the fight in this team, where we’re not going to just roll over and let a team just run through us.”