Suns look to crack Clippers nuts

Merry Christmas Clippers! - Jim Coughenour

Last chance for Christmas shopping, Suns. All I want for Christmas is a win over the Clippers. Who am I kidding? There are lots of things I'd take over a W in this game, numero uno being time with family and friends. And if my Christmas spirit is contingent on the Suns winning this game, then I'm probably totally scrooged. That being said, let's hope the Suns wrap this game up, put a bow on it and shove that baby right under our collective tree.

When: Sunday, December 23, 2012, 6:00 PM local time (8:00 EST)

Where: US Airways Center, Phoenix, AZ

Watch/Listen: TV: FSAZ, Radio: 620 KTAR

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Last Meeting:

On December 8th, the Suns played 36 minutes of very competitive basketball at the Staples Center against the Clippers. The Clippers, meanwhile, played 48. LA stultified the Suns in the 4th quarter, starting with a 17-4 run, and turned a close game into a blowout loss for the Suns, 117-99. Blake Griffin scored a game high 24 points and dominated the Suns with his freakish athleticism. Chris Paul played well (16 points, 11 assists), while Goran Dragic was pathetic pedestrian (8 points, 5 assists, 4 turnovers). The Suns two best individual performances came from Michael Beasley (19 points in the first half) and Luis Scola (18 points, 10 rebounds), but, ironically, both were on the court for the 4th quarter meltdown.

Team Bios:

Los Angeles Clippers: 20-6

Points per game: 101.1 (9th) Points allowed: 92.2 (4th)

Injuries: Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups are out. Eric Bledsoe is day to day.

Remember that loss to the Clippers back on December 8th? The one I just referenced right above this? The Clippers haven't lost since that game. In fact, the Clippers haven't lost since November 26th. That win over the Suns was their 5th consecutive win in what has now ballooned to a franchise record 12 game winning streak. Five of those 12 wins have been on the road, including victories against the Utah Jazz and Chicago Bulls. The Clippers are good.

LA is led by their all-star duo of Chris Paul (16 points, 9.4 assists, 2.6 steals) and Blake Griffin (18.2 points, 8.8 rebounds), but get solid contributions from many players with seven averaging at least 9.3 points per game. In fact, Jamal Crawford is second on the team in scoring (16.1) coming off the bench and reserve Matt Barnes (10.1) is 4th.

The Clippers last played Friday in a 97-85 victory over the Sacramento Kings. The Clippers have won their last four games by double digits, with an average margin of victory of 16.5 points per game. Like I wrote previously, the Clippers are good.

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Phoenix Suns: 11-16

Points per game: 98.1 (12th) Points allowed: 100.8 (26th)

Injuries: None. Big ups to the Suns necromantic prodigious medical staff.

The Phoenix Suns return home after a tough loss on the road to the Portland Trail Blazers in what ended up being a very winnable game. Damian Lillard turned out to be the difference as the phenom rookie dominated the individual matchup against Goran Dragic. After a scoreless first quarter, he went for a game high 25 points (18 in the second half, including nine of the Blazers final 12 points) and seven assists. The Suns were led by a solid effort from Marcin Gortat, who scored 18 points (9-12 from the field) and grabbed nine rebounds. Despite the fact that the Blazers seemed incapable of guarding the gazelle, Marcin was perplexingly limited to 12 field goal attempts in a game where he was seemingly capable of scoring at will...

Despite their recent improved play the Suns are still rudderless. Quality role players abound, but there is no leader for them to unite around. Too many Indians, not enough chiefs. The Suns have six players averaging double figures, but their best scorers seem to be the worst defenders. Meanwhile, the best defenders struggle to score. Much of this isn't surprising, since the team is deficient in players that have even one NBA skill that is markedly above average. On any given night, if enough of the role players step up the Suns will be competitive and have a good chance to win (especially at home). When they don't, the Suns lose (especially on the road where role players, young players and reserves tend to struggle).

To expound on this, the Suns home record of 9-5, including four straight wins, has been sterling compared to their wretchedly woeful mark of 2-11 on the road. Unfortunately, the Clippers road mark of 8-3 still trumps the Suns home mark. This is going to be a tough game. But not bereft of hope, mind you, evidenced by recent victories against the Utah Jazz and Memphis Grizzlies. The Suns even played the Clippers to a stalemate in LA for three quarters before succumbing in the 4th. No reason to quash the hope that the Suns can improve upon that in the friendly, though far from capacity as Dave informed us in his brilliantly concocted piece, confines of US Airways Center.

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What To Watch For:

Paul vs. Dragic: This matchup was dominated by Paul in the previous meeting. Dragic has tapered off after a better start to the season and is averaging paltry numbers of 13.2 points (on 42.5% shooting) and 6.3 assists for the month of December. He has been torched by Damian Lillard (25 points, 7 assists) and Kemba Walker (27 points, 6 assists) the last two games, though he did counterblast Walker's effort with 21 points (4-5 from three) and 11 assists of his own to record only his second double-double of the season. Goran needs to play better. If there is a player who can be a leader on this team, that's if, then it is Dragic. Hopefully he can start to turn it around tonight.

Luis Scola: Who will show up tonight, Luis Scola or Luis Scola? That isn't actually a paradox, because a player that is supposed to be a steady veteran presence has been anything but that recently. In the last seven games, Luis has recorded two double-doubles with 18 points and 10 rebounds against these Clippers and 14 points and 10 assists against Sacramento. He has also had three games where he scored six points or less and was summarily benched for being a pernicious force (to the Suns) on both ends of the court.

Rebounding: The Clippers are +1.6 in rebounding differential in the league (T-10th) while the Suns are -3.6 (T-25th). They crushed the Suns on the offensive glass 17-9 and were +4 overall in the last meeting. The Suns need to man up in this game and put butts on bodies.

Marcin Gortat/Jared Dudley: Gortat has recorded two double-doubles and is averaging 13 points and 11.3 rebounds over the last four games. The Suns need him to be a presence against the Clipper's bigs. Jared has averaged 16.7 points over the last six games (including three consecutive 20+ point efforts) and has been stuffing the stat sheet with a separate nine rebound and 10 assist effort over this stretch. Look for Dudley to recover from an 0-4 three point performance against Portland, as he has been shooting 46.7% from long range during the month of December.

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Key Stat: The Suns stand at 11-16 (13th place) at the one third point of the season. The last three seasons, only one team outside of the top eight in the Western Conference at the one third point has made the playoffs each year. The Grizzlies (10th) unseated the Rockets (8th) in 2011-12, the Grizzlies (11th) overtook the Jazz (4th) in 2010-11, and OKC (9th) upstaged the Rockets (6th) in 2009-10. The Suns have been 8-14 (12-15 at 27) and 13-14 at the one third point the last two seasons.

Going back to the expansion year of 2004-05, only one team that was 13th place or lower in the Western Conference has made the playoffs. The Sacramento Kings pulled off the feat and ascended from 13th to 8th and lost a first round series to the San Antonio Spurs.

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The Final Word(s):

While it is not preposterous that the Suns win this game, even the most ardent, optimistic fan will probably admit this will be a formidable obstacle. As illustrated by the previous statistical analysis, the Suns have a scintilla of margin for error if they still plan on making a run at the playoffs. No time like tonight to put a foot in the right direction of what appears to be an arduous path.

Plus, the Clippers have to lose eventually, so the Suns might as well play the role (we play roles well) of streakbusters.

Everyone have a happy and safe Christmas!

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