PHOENIX — The Suns said the team needed a “jolt” when it parted ways with Alvin Gentry last week, and replaced him with Lindsey Hunter as the interim head coach for (at least) the rest of this season. Hunter said from day one his first priority would be defense, and he’s been a man of his word, at least through his first two games on the bench.
Phoenix is now 2-0 under its new coach, after a nationally televised 93-88 victory over the Clippers on Thursday.
L.A. dropped its third straight game, and did so for the second straight game without Chris Paul, who was sidelined with a bruised kneecap. Even with the losing streak, the Clippers have lost just 12 times all season against 32 wins, so they’re not exactly going to be in any hurry to rush him back before he’s 100 percent.
In this one, Paul was sorely missed. While the Suns busted it on defense all night long, the Clippers struggled for the most part to get good looks or easy shots. It didn’t help that Blake Griffin aggravated a previous ankle injury by rolling it in the first quarter.
“I really injured it three days ago against Golden State,” Griffin said afterward. “It got better, but I just kind of re-tweaked it. It’s not terrible. To me, ankles are one of those things where you’ve just got to tolerate the pain, so I’ve just got to do a better job.”
Griffin finished with 12 points, eight rebounds, and two blocked shots in 36 minutes. That’s not going to be enough for his team on a night where its All-Star point guard is missing, and he knows it.
“Our offense was stagnant,” Griffin said. “Our defense wasn’t great. We just did a poor job overall, and it starts with me. I’ve just got to do a better job of setting the tone early and being a leader out there. Especially when Chris is not there.”
There were several stretches where the Clippers needed offense, but it was hard to come by against a Suns team that has embraced its new coach’s defensive principles for now. L.A. ranks fourth in the league in offensive efficiency and field goal percentage, but was held under 90 points for just the third time all year, and finished the night shooting 39.8 percent from the field — a mark that wouldn’t be good enough for anything but the league’s worst if averaged over the course of the season.
Jamal Crawford led L.A. with 21 points in 37 minutes off the bench, but should have gotten more opportunities, especially in the final period. But when asked about it afterward, Crawford said he simply was trying to make the plays that made the most sense.
“We have some very capable guys,” Crawford said. “Guys that make plays. I try to step up when my number’s called, but they did a lot of double-teaming. So I had to make the right play and give the ball up and trust in my teammates to make plays, and we did that for a long time.”
The most capable on this night was wearing the home whites. Goran Dragic finished with 24 points, five rebounds, and eight assists for the Suns, while energizing his team throughout.
Without Chris Paul, this loss won’t matter in the grand scheme of things for the Clippers; this is a team that has aspirations of playing deep into the postseason, so there won’t be much in the way of dwelling on a shorthanded loss to a team playing with a renewed spirit under a new head coach.
For the Suns, however, consecutive wins have been very hard to come by this season, so the team will take them no matter how they are earned, and no matter which of their opponent’s stars is forced to sit due to injury.
There’s been a lot of off-the-court turmoil in Phoenix over the past week. But management has been validated to a certain extent by the team’s effort in its first two games under Hunter, and the results have only served to reinforce the thinking — at least internally — that the correct decision was made.