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Game Preview: Clippers fight for playoff position versus reeling Suns

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The Phoenix Suns have lost nine straight games, and the Clippers want to extend that to 10.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

What: Los Angeles Clippers (45-31) at Phoenix Suns (22-53)

When: 7:00 PM

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ

Watch: Fox Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM


Once again, the Clippers are headed to the playoffs with a mid-seed in the West, but unlikely to reach the Conference Finals for the first time in the Lob City era.

And once again, the Phoenix Suns are planning summer vacations that begin a day after their 82nd game of the season.

Both situations are as predictable as death and taxes these last six years.

The Clippers

In all six years of the Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan era, the Clippers have made the playoffs but have not made it beyond the second round. In fact, a Chris Paul-led team has never made a Conference Finals in nine attempts (three with the Hornets/Pelicans). That’s one of the weirdest “did you knows” in the NBA, considering Paul is a sure-fire Hall of Fame player.

This year, the Clippers are once again a mid-seed, currently sitting in 5th in the West and winners of 5 of their last 7 games but only 10-9 since the All-Star Break overall.

The Big Three are all (relatively) healthy and their offense is still 5th most efficient in the NBA, but their defense has gotten much morseo since the All-Star Break - ranking only 24th overall in the league.

Outside of the Big Three, J.J. Redick has been on a tear lately - averaging 17.8 points with 52% three-point shooting in the last 10 games, while superb Jamal Crawford is posting 13 points on 42% shooting from deep over the same span.

Besides Austin Rivers (hamstring), all of the Clippers appear healthy and should play on Thursday night against the Suns as they try to claim that 4th seed from the Jazz and home court advantage in what looks like an inevitable first-round series between the two.

The Suns

And then there’s the Suns, riding a nine-game losing streak and increasingly having to fight through these final weeks just to get the season over with.

Will the Suns win another game in their last seven? That’s a tough question, but not likely tonight with the Clippers really NEEDING this win to help their chances of home court in the playoffs first round.

Good news for the Suns is that Dragan Bender is getting closer to returning. The 4th overall pick from the 2016 draft will NOT play on Thursday night, but is slated to return from his ankle/foot injury this weekend some time - either Saturday on the road, or Sunday at home.

But for tonight, the Suns might be decimated once again. After sitting down many of their veterans for the season, the Suns’ best intentions were punched in the neck by the injury bug and now they struggle to put a full rotation of ANYONE on the floor.

We don’t know yet if Devin Booker will play, but I’d be willing to make a bet that he will take the floor tonight. If the Suns are smart (and they usually are) they will embrace their first opportunity to celebrate Booker’s 70 points on the home floor. I’d be surprised if there’s not some kind of video tribute.

Without Booker, the Suns played the Hawks tough the other night (leading by 7 in the 4th before the lid was placed on the basket). Tyler Ulis, Derrick Jones Jr., T.J. Warren, Marquese Chriss and Alex Len fought the good fight, but it was Mr. Almost Triple Double Jared Dudley (6 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocks) who helped the Suns give the Hawks their biggest scare.

The Suns now have a 9-game losing streak, including the last 8 without Eric Bledsoe.

Matchup

We could talk about Blake Griffin vs. Marquese Chriss. Or Alex Len vs. DeAndre Jordan.

But there’s another matchup I can’t wait to see. It’s either going to be inspirational, or it will be like checking out a car wreck.

Poor Tyler Ulis. First, he can’t get enough minutes. Now, he can’t get enough rest. Ulis is up to 40 minutes a night these days and probably feels like a bowl of jelly from all the exertion. His shot and his defense are suffering the most as a result.

Now, he gets to face one of the best PGs ever to play the game in Chris Paul. Let’s see what that does to Ulis’ psyche. Does it pump Ulis up, help him deliver his best game against his best competition? Or does it just punch him in the face and force Earl Watson to lean on Ronnie Price too much tonight?

Prediction

The Clippers really need this game.

The Suns really need this game to be over.

I predict that the Suns will play hard, loose (good and bad), and have the game within a couple possessions at some point in the third quarter. Maybe even the fourth quarter. But in the end, the Clippers will pull away and take the win they desperately need.

In other words, another perfect tanking game.