Los Angeles Clippers: Suns

Rapid Reaction: Suns 93, Clippers 88

January, 24, 2013
If Chris Paul’s MVP candidacy took a hit last week when the Los Angeles Clippers went 3-0 on the road in his absence and won their games by an average of 14.6 points per game, it is back on track now.

With the Clippers falling to the Phoenix Suns, 93-86, Thursday night they have now lost three straight games and two straight without Paul. Not only did the Clippers lose to a Suns team that was 14-28 and just made a controversial coaching change, but they looked absolutely lost in a game they needed to have to snap a two-game losing streak.

Anyone making an MVP argument for Paul should probably point out that the Clippers beat the Suns 103-77 in Phoenix last month with Paul running the show and lost to the Suns just one month later with Paul on the bench.

Here are three takeaways from the game:

Griffin struggles

Blake Griffin suffered a sprained left ankle after stepping on Goran Dragic’s foot in the first quarter and never looked like himself after that. He finished with 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds, but four Clippers attempted more shots than Griffin. He had only four attempts in the second half as the Clippers tried to close the game out after taking the lead in the fourth quarter, but he could never get going.

“I tried to get him some more,” Del Negro told Prime Ticket after the game. “He sprained his ankle pretty good in the first and was battling through it. He was limping a little bit in the first half but he’s a competitive guy and wanted to be out there. We settled a couple of times when we could have attacked. We didn’t attack the basket as much as I would like.”

No CP3

The Clippers don’t want to make any excuses while Paul is out, and there’s certainly a chance he could be out for a week as he was the last time he sat out with a bruised right kneecap. But with the Clippers up by one with 7:45 left in the game, the Clippers sure could have used Paul or at least Chauncey Billups running the offense to close the game out. Eric Bledsoe is a great change-of-pace point guard and can give the Clippers a spark in the second and third quarters, but Del Negro likes to lean on Paul (and Billups when he’s healthy) early and late in games and it's not hard to see why.

“All that stuff changes with Chris or Chauncey out there,” Del Negro said. “There’s no excuse. We were in this game and whoever is out there I have confidence in and they got to make the plays.”

Shooting woes

A growing trend without Paul in the lineup is the Clippers taking bad shots and shooting a low percentage. The Clippers shot just 39.8 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc against the Suns Thursday. The Clippers poor free throw shooting also continued as they hit just 16 of 26 attempts. The Clippers are never going to be a perfect free throw shooting team, but as long as Paul is out they cannot afford to miss 10 free throws a game in his absence.

“We missed 10 free throws but luckily they missed some free throws as well, which helped,” Del Negro said. “But it’s hard to win close games when you’re going to miss that many free throws.”

Clippers' season won't end with banner

April, 19, 2012
Whatever chances the Los Angeles Clippers had of ruffling the feathers of the Los Angeles Lakers by hanging a Pacific Division championship banner up at Staples Center likely died Thursday in Phoenix.

The Suns’ 93-90 win over the Clippers not only kept the Suns’ playoff hopes alive but probably ended any hopes the Clippers had of overtaking the Lakers for the Pacific title. The Lakers are now one game up with the tie-breaker in-hand so the Clippers would essentially have to make up two games with only three games left in the season.

Stranger things have happened but with Kobe Bryant coming back for the Lakers on Friday and the Clippers finishing the season with back-to-back games on the road against the playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks, it doesn’t look likely.

Now, Lakers fans may still be scoffing at the notion that the Clippers would dare hang up a banner as meaningless as a Pacific Division title at Staples Center but they may have missed the fact that the Los Angeles Kings, who haven’t won Stanley Cup, have a division and conference championship banner hanging up in the rafters.

The Clippers have been itching for any reason to hang up a banner, a jersey, anything at Staples Center since 1999 and this was their chance, whether the Lakers’ fans think its legitimate or not.

Although the Clippers probably won’t overtake the Lakers in the Pacific this season, Chris Paul has changed the culture surrounding the Clippers so much that it’s impossible not to hear a Buffalo Braves reference during a Clippers game or read it in a story this season because you really do have to go all the way back to the Braves to find a time when the franchise was this good.

Not only have the Clippers won 13 of 16 games but they have are 16-15 on the road this season and are attempting to finish the season with a .500 or better road record for the first time since moving to Los Angeles in 1984.

This season Paul has helped the Clippers end long road losing streaks in Denver (9 straight losses), Utah (16), Orlando (9), San Antonio (17), Dallas (10) and nearly added Phoenix to the list, but will have to wait until next season to snap a losing streak that hit 10 on Thursday.

With their next win, the Clippers will clinch the best winning percentage in franchise history which was previously held by, you guessed it, the 1974-75 Buffalo Braves (.598). It would also go a long way in clinching the No. 4 seed in the West, which would give the Clippers home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, likely against the Memphis Grizzlies

All the numbers and statistics the Clippers have put up this season, however, can’t replicate or make up for the fact that many key players on the Clippers such as Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Randy Foye and Eric Bledsoe have no playoff experience. Thursday’s game in Phoenix, however, was a perfect example of the kind of playoff atmosphere and intensity they will face next month.

“The playoffs are a whole different level,” Del Negro said this week. “It will be different for some of the guys that haven't been through it. Guys think they're ready, but they're not. It will be a different level.”

The biggest lesson Paul said he will try to instill in his teammates about the playoffs is having a short memory. Every win and every loss should be forgotten the moment the game is over until one team accumulates four wins. With three games left in the season, the Clippers have already had the greatest regular season in franchise history, but Paul knows all of that will be about as meaningless as a Pacific Division championship banner in Los Angeles once the playoffs finally start.

What to watch: Clippers-Suns

April, 19, 2012
Clippers (39-23) vs. Phoenix Suns (32-30) at US Airways Center, 7:30 p.m. PT

Five storylines to track:

1. Phoenix rising: It has been somewhat of a roller-coaster season for the Phoenix Suns, but they have had success whenever they have played the Clippers, especially in Phoenix. The Suns have won two of three meetings this season against the Clippers and overcome double-digits to win both games. All four meetings this season have come after the All-Star break. Phoenix has won nine-straight home games over the Clippers, who last won in Phoenix on April 17, 2007. Phoenix has won 24 of the last 31 meetings, including 16 of the last 19 and Suns coach Alvin Gentry, who used to coach the Clippers, is 11-2 against his old team since taking over as head coach in Phoenix.

2. Playoff push: While the Clippers are just a half game behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the Pacific Division lead and the No. 3 seed, the Suns are just a half game behind the Utah Jazz for the No. 8 seed in the playoffs. Phoenix was six games under .500 at the All-Star break and is trying to become the first Western Conference team since the 1996-97 Suns to earn a playoff berth after entering the break six or more games under .500. The Suns are 18-10 (.643) since the All-Star break. Among Western Conference teams, only San Antonio (21-6) and the Lakers (20-9) have a better record. Overall, only the Spurs, Lakers, Chicago (20-7), Boston (22-9) and Indiana (19-10) own a better record since the break.

3. Streaking: The Clippers have won five straight and 13 of their last 15 games since March 24. The Clippers' 13-2 record equals the best 15-game stretch in franchise history. The Clippers had three 13-2 runs during the 1978-79 season, when they were known as the Buffalo Braves. The Clippers are also on the verge of winning six straight games twice in one season. They hadn’t won six straight in 20 years before doing so to begin this 15-game run. The Clippers have also won three road games in a row. The Clippers are 16-14 (.533) on the road this season and are attempting to finish the season with a .500 or better road record for the first time since moving to Los Angeles in 1984. The most road wins for the Los Angeles Clippers was 20 when they went 20-21 during the 2005-06 season.

4. Nash v. CP3: Steve Nash is 10 assists shy of passing Oscar Robertson for fifth on the NBA’s all-time list. It will leave Nash behind only all-time leader John Stockton, active leader Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson and Magic Johnson in NBA history. Nash is second in the NBA in assists (10.8) and has led the NBA in assists five times in the last seven seasons, including last year. Chris Paul is just behind Nash in third place in assists this season but first in steals (2.47). This season Paul is pace to be one of five players in NBA history with a season of at least 19.0 points 9.0 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game.

5. Moving up: The Clippers are 16 games over .500 (39-23) this season. It's the third time the Clippers have been more than five games over .500 this many games into a season since moving to L.A. They finished the season eight games over .500 in 1991-92 and 12 games over .500 in 2005-06. The Clippers already surpassed their victory total from last season on April 5, and their 39 wins are the most for the club since winning 40 in 2006-07. The Clippers' 39-23 record after 62 games is the best record in franchise history, equaling the 1974-75 Buffalo Braves.

Clippers beginning to hit their stride

March, 28, 2012
LOS ANGELES – There were no hour-long meetings this time. No overly dramatic messages from the veterans in the locker room. And perhaps most importantly for the Clippers, there was no let down.

Two weeks ago the Clippers gathered in their locker room at Staples Center and closed the door for an hour. They had just lost to a Phoenix Suns team playing without Steve Nash and Grant Hill, 91-87. The Clippers led by as many as 17 points in the game and 12 in the final period. They faded late as they had done time and time again and something needed to be said. Actually, a lot of things needed to be said.

The Clippers responded after the meeting with two lackluster wins at home and followed that up with three losses in three days on the road. It’s hard to claim the meeting was some kind of seminal moment in the Clippers’ season considering their poor road trip but the Clippers haven’t lost at home since.

After beating the Suns 103-86 on Wednesday, the Clippers have now won five games in a row at home and have won three straight overall for the first time since January. Their three straight wins on their current five-game homestand have been by an average margin of 15 points, the team’s most dominant stretch this season.

(Read full post)

What to watch: Clippers-Rockets

March, 3, 2012
Clippers (21-13) vs. Houston Rockets (21-16) at Toyota Center, 6 p.m. PT

Five storylines to track:

1. Breaking bad: Before the Clippers left Los Angeles for their six-game road trip, they dismissed any notion that they had gotten into a rut when it came to closing out games late. After finding ways to pull out close games earlier in the season, the Clippers had seen late leads vanish against San Antonio, Golden State and Minnesota. “If this happens in Sacramento and the next game, then I have something to worry about,” Clippers guard Chris Paul said. “It's something that can be corrected. ... I'm not panicking.” Well, it didn’t happen against Sacramento, but it did happen against Phoenix and now the Clippers have lost four of their last six games and are 6-6 since losing Chauncey Billups for the season last month. If the Clippers don’t turn things around against Houston on Sunday, there will be plenty for Paul and his teammates to be worried about at the midway point of their 10-day road trip.

2. Bench rising: After getting outscored by the Timberwolves’ bench 72-11 on Thursday, the Clippers’ much-maligned bench has stepped up their production in the last two games. The Clippers bench, which is averaging 22.9 points this season, scored 32 points against Phoenix and 41 points against Sacramento. The biggest difference has been the increased output from Clippers forward Kenyon Martin, who is shooting 61.1 percent from the field and averaging 11.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in the last two games. Clippers guard Mo Williams, who is a candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award, is averaging 15.5 points and 4.0 assists over the last two games while shooting 63.6 percent (7-of-11) from beyond the arc and 44.4 percent (12-of-27) from the field.

3. Second-half switch: Although the Clippers have failed to close out games recently, the reason they have even been in most of their games has been the play of Paul in the second half. In the last seven games, Paul has scored 59.1 percent of his points in the second half. During that span he has scored 94 of his 159 points in the final 24 minutes of the game. Paul scored a season-high 36 points at the beginning of this stretch against Portland and scored 12 of his 16 points against Phoenix on Friday in the last two quarters. Paul says he likes to get his teammates involved in the first half, but he may have to spread his scoring out more evenly so the Clippers don’t have to rely on him so much late in games.

4. Butler’s not doing it: In the Clippers' last seven games Caron Butler's production has dropped off considerably from his form earlier in the season. He is averaging just 8.1 points per game during that stretch while shooting 32.3 percent (23-of-71 FG) from the field and 11.7 percent (2-of-17) from beyond the arc. Not coincidentally, the Clippers are 3-4 in their last seven games. Butler had averaged 15.3 points through his first 25 games with the Clippers while shooting 44 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from 3-point range and hit double-figures in 22 of those 25 games. Since Billups was lost for the season last month, however, Butler simply hasn’t been the same. He no longer gets the same open looks on the weakside he did when Billups was penetrating the gaps and causing defenses to respect him.

5. A thin line: One of the biggest reasons the Clippers have struggled to score in their last two games is they have struggled just to get to the free-throw line. Against Sacramento and Phoenix, the Clippers shot a combined 17 free throws. Just as surprising as that number, however, is that the Clippers, normally a poor free-throw shooting team, hit 16 of those free throws (94.1 percent). The bigger problem is that the Clippers’ opponents have shot 35 more free throws than them during this stretch. Since the 1985-86 season, the Clippers have attempted nine or fewer foul shots in a game just 15 times, and never before in back-to-back games. The Clippers are 1-14 when shooting under 10 free throws, with their lone win coming against Sacramento on Thursday.

Chauncey Billups' loss still felt

March, 3, 2012
Chauncey Billups’ jersey still hangs in the Los Angeles Clippers’ locker room. It is put up before every home game and road game as if Billups will still suit up and be in the starting lineup.

Unfortunately for the Clippers, Billups isn’t walking through their locker room door anytime soon.

Billups was lost for the season last month with a torn left Achilles tendon and his impact on this young team is beginning to be felt more and more with every late game loss the Clippers suffer.

There are a myriad of reasons why the Clippers lost to the Phoenix Suns 81-78 Friday night, their fourth loss in their last six games.

Maybe it was because it was the Clippers' second game of a back-to-back on the road, maybe it was because the Clippers’ starters could never find their shot or maybe it was because the Suns, one of the league’s worst rebounding teams, out rebounded the Clippers, one of the league’s best on the boards.

Whatever the reasons may be the loss was yet another example of how much the Clippers miss Billups’ leadership, calming presence and experience down the stretch in close games.

The Clippers are now 6-6 without Billups after starting the season 15-7 with him in the starting lineup.

Billups’ impact on this team went far beyond the 14.9 points and 4.0 assists he was averaging. If we just look at the numbers, Randy Foye, who is now starting in place of Billups, has done an admirable job. He is averaging 8.7 points and 2.4 assists this season although he scored just 2 points on 1-of-8 shooting against the Suns.

Billups created opportunities for his teammates, drew fouls and put opponents in the penalty early and was the best free throw shooter on a team without many good players from the charity stripe. No one has felt his loss more than Caron Butler, who no longer gets the same open looks on the weakside he did when Billups was penetrating the gaps and causing defenses to respect him. That’s simply something Foye does not provide.

So not only have the Clippers lost Billups, but Butler is no longer the player he once was with Billups in the lineup. Butler was 4-of-13 for 9 points and 8 rebounds Thursday night. Coming into this six-game road trip he had shot only 31.5% from the field (12-of-38) in his last four games and had only made 1-of-14 from beyond the arc.

Perhaps the biggest area where Billups’ loss is felt is in the fourth quarter during close games. Those were situations where the Clippers found a way to win with Billups on the court. They had snapped long franchise losing streaks against the Nuggets, Jazz and Magic on the road and had beaten the likes of the Thunder, Heat, Lakers and Mavericks at home with Billups on the floor.

Without Billups, the Clippers have blown close games late in four of their last six losses to the Spurs, Warriors, Timberwolves and Suns. The Spurs loss was the most heartbreaking but it was also the only one of the four against a team that will likely make the playoffs.

There’s nothing the Clippers can do with their current roster to fill the void left by Billups, who plans to return to Los Angeles later this month to continue his rehab and be around the team. They were unable to sign J.R. Smith as a free agent last month and instead signed veteran Bobby Simmons, who scored his first points in the NBA since 2009 on Thursday. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro will not move Mo Williams, who is averaging 13.5 points and 3.4 assists, to the starting lineup since that would leave them with no consistent production off the bench.

Maybe 12 games isn’t the greatest sample size but after a .500 record without Billups and a recent inability to close out games late, it might be time for the Clippers general manager Neil Olshey to seriously pursue a deal for a player that will make the Clippers a more serious contender down the stretch and into the postseason.

Players like the Boston Celtics’ Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, who have been rumored as possible Clippers targets, may not be young and will cost the team assets they would rather keep but the Clippers are not in a position to think long-term with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin essentially giving the Clippers two years to prove they are a championship team before they can jump ship.

The Clippers looked like a championship team at the beginning of the season when Billups was hitting big shots and providing some championship experience on the floor. Now that he is gone, and seeing how the team has done in his absence it may be time for the Clippers to find a similar player before the trade deadline if they want to be playing well into the summer this year.