LOS ANGELES — Apparently the Phoenix Suns players didn’t read the scouting report on Blake Griffin and went by last year’s version — he has a jump shot now and if you give him space he will make you pay.
Phoenix’s effort was not the kind of defensive performance a team fighting for its playoff life can afford. Griffin had 22 points in the game’s first quarter on 8-of-9 shooting, and sure there were dunks — including a Mailman tribute dunk — but there also were 18-foot fadeaway jumpers and shots knocked down from the elbow. After the game Chris Paul admitted he should have given Griffin the ball more.
“If you let a guy tee-up that 12-foot shot, he’s going to make it all day,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said after the game. “We were playing off the guy, trying to put an arm out. Not once did we ever get into the guy.”
Eventually the Suns did get into him — PJ Tucker really got into him and got ejected for trying to elbow Griffin in the head after the two got tangled up in the fourth quarter. But by that point it was too late — Griffin finished with 37 points on 14-of-16 shooting in one of the best offensive performances of his career.
And that still almost wasn’t enough against a scrappy Phoenix team.
The Clippers led by 25 in the third and had to hang on at the end for a 112-105 win over the Suns.
That is the Clippers eighth win in a row but they remain the four seed (in a virtual tie with three seed Houston) as every team not based in Oklahoma City remains hot at the top of the West.
For the Suns they fall half a game back of the Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. With that on the line it frustrated Hornacek his team didn’t play with more urgency early.
“It didn’t seem like we were ready to play,” he said. “We were soft. In the second half we got after it better defensively, but we need to put that kind of effort that we had in the late third quarter and through the fourth quarter. We need to do that more often.”
Both of these teams are in the top 10 in the league in pace but early on it is the Clippers doing a better job of pushing the tempo and punishing the Suns in transition (12 fast break points in first 10 minutes). That pace pushed the Clippers out to a 34-23 first quarter lead.
The Clippers pulled away in the second again as Griffin continued to make everything, including a couple 16-foot bank shots ala Tim Duncan.
“When shots are falling, honestly, just keep shooting,” Griffin said. “But at the same time we were all hitting shots. Guys were scoring, our offense was going. Just kind of one of those zones where you feel like everything you’re throwing up is going in.”
Pretty much everything did go in — the Clippers shot 61.5 percent in the first half. A 17-8 run in the third quarter had Los Angeles up 25. Darren Collison chipped in 20 and Danny Granger had his best and clearly most comfortable game as a Clipper with 14 off the bench.
But if you take your foot off the gas pedal against the Suns you pay. The Suns fought to get it down to 11 late in the third and hung around that margin for most of the fourth quarter. Then Griffin fouled out with 3:23 left and the Clippers up 10. The last two were offensive fouls on Griffin, who never really adjusted to a tightly called game.
Goran Dragic then had a couple twisting layups and the lead was down to six (he finished with a team high 23, seven Suns were in double digits in a balanced attack). Chris Paul said he and the Clippers offense froze up a little when Griffin left the game because they had relied on him so much.
But then it was the Clippers turn to be a little scrappy and hold on for the win.
“It was good for us to win a grind-out game like that,” CP3 said.
The Clippers will take the wins as they come now.
So will the Suns, frankly, but they need to get back to being the relentless Suns who played 48 hard minutes or they will be able to schedule their vacations for April this year.