As the starting lineups took the floor Friday night in Phoenix for a nationally televised contest between the Clippers and the Suns, the matchup that looked to be far and away the most favorable for L.A. was Channing Frye against Blake Griffin.
Griffin, after all, leads the league in dunks, and is so athletically gifted that the Suns’ entire game plan was built around stopping him from making the kinds of plays he’s become famous for — the flying slams that get his team hyped, and the ones that lead the late edition of SportsCenter.
There was one message on the Suns’ whiteboard in the locker room before the game, and it was this: “Stay between starting bigs and the basket.” Phoenix did this to perfection, and Frye was able to hold his own against Griffin defensively, so the Suns were able to grind out a hard-fought 81-78 victory, the team’s second in as many nights.
“Channing was great,” Steve Nash said afterward. “He battled, he hustled, he took a lot of contact, and made it tough on Blake. He wasn’t able to get straight lines to the basket or spin off for dunks, so he did a great job. It was key for us tonight to try to make it difficult for him.”
Griffin finished with 17 points and seven rebounds, on just 6-of-19 shooting. But through three quarters, he had just 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting, and ended the game by finishing a three-point play with the outcome having already been decided.
Frye was physical with Griffin from the opening tip, and his length made things tough for Blake when he did try to shoot over him. It didn’t help Griffin’s cause that Grant Hill — who did an outstanding job guarding Chris Paul, and held him to just 16 points and five assists on 6-of-15 shooting — was able to come help and double Griffin without any consequences.
The Suns were dismal offensively in the first half, recording season-lows in both first-quarter points (17) and first-half points (32). But while the Clippers had their opponent on the ropes down 11 more than halfway through the second quarter, they allowed Phoenix to close to within three at the half, thanks to giving the reserves a longer leash than usual.
“We had a game last night,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro began, when asked about his rotations in the second. “You want to get them rested, you want to get them to where they can play a lot in the second half because you knew Phoenix was going to make some shots and make a run. Our bench played really well last night, they got kind of a little bit of a momentum, a little bit of a rhythm so I wanted to kind of feel them out a little bit.”
Had Del Negro gone back to the starters a bit earlier, he might have been able to extend the lead to a comfortable margin that the Suns would have had trouble coming back from — especially on a night where Nash admitted he simply didn’t have it. But Paul and Griffin weren’t inserted back into the game until there was just over two and a half minutes left in the half.
“It’s tough to lose a lead like that, but it’s on all of us,” Griffin said.
Despite the fact that the Clips battled back from a double-digit deficit of their own in the second half to tie the game with under three minutes to play, their chance to put this game away was lost by not extending their lead when they had the chance. Phoenix did what it set out to do, and made things difficult for Griffin all night long, keeping him away from the front of the rim, and off of the late-night highlights.
“It was a great win,” Nash said. “Obviously I didn’t have it tonight. A lot of guys stepped up and made big plays, so it was a great team win. Those are the kinds of wins, those ugly wins, that we’ve been missing on our home floor. That was against a good team, so it was very important.”