Clippers' defense key in turnaround
LOS ANGELES -- The Clippers' offensive output was the same -- 108 points, on the nose -- in both of their matchups with the Suns this season, in Phoenix last month and Sunday at home in a Staples Center matinee.
The difference between the early season road loss and Sunday's just-barely home victory? Defense.
With 19 seconds left and the Suns down three points, the newly acquired and scorching-hot Mickael Pietrus had the ball in his hands and an opportunity to send the game into overtime with a 3-pointer. But L.A. guard Eric Gordon stayed with him dribble-for-dribble and snatched the ball away near the out-of-bounds line when Pietrus looked to shoot.
Gordon then passed the ball to Baron Davis, and Davis threw an outlet pass to rookie forward Al-Farouq Aminu for the game-sealing dunk as the Clippers topped the Suns 108-103 before a sellout crowd at Staples.
The buzzwords of the day in the Clippers' locker room afterward: "progress" and "pretty good."
"I thought our end-of-game defense was pretty good," coach Vinny Del Negro said. "We were trying to control them off the 3-point line as best we could, but we gave them some easy baskets.
"Sometimes it's not gonna be perfect, but you just have to grind it out and talk it out."
It was a grind for the Clippers, who spent much of the second half of the game trying to hold on to a 15-point lead they grabbed after one quarter of play. Things got particularly precarious when forward Blake Griffin fouled out with 2:52 to play and L.A. up by nine.
"I don't know how this would've gone in Game 3, 4 or 5 or anything like that," said Griffin, who finished with a game-high 28 points and 12 rebounds in 38 minutes to extend his double-double streak to 18 games. "But now that we're more comfortable with each other and all that, guys know what to do and they stepped up and did it."
Gordon's defense in the closing seconds was key to earning the win Sunday -- Davis called him "one of the best on-the-ball defenders in this league" in big-time situations -- but the Clippers also did some things right on defense earlier in the game.
Suns guard Steve Nash didn't make a field goal for the first 22-plus minutes of the game. Guard Jared Dudley, averaging 30 points in his past two games, had six Sunday. Forward Grant Hill looked spent from his stint moonlighting as a power forward while defending Griffin and missed a key open jumper in the final minutes.
Aside from the newcomer Pietrus, who scored 25 points on 9-of-14 shooting, Phoenix shot just 4-of-17 from beyond the arc.
"Our starters came out and gave us a good push tonight," said Aminu, who played what both he and Del Negro called his best defensive game of the season. "Last time we came out they really jumped on us early.
"This time, we know who we are and we just played our game."
Gordon said the Clippers played "pretty good defense overall." The Suns were averaging 108 points per game entering the contest and scored 116 in their home win last month, so holding them to 103 did represent improvement.
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"They usually score a little more than that," Gordon said.
This month, the Clippers are giving up almost 11 fewer points per game than in November, when teams -- Minnesota and Detroit included -- were regularly putting up 110 on L.A. This month, 109 is the most points the Clippers have given up, in a five-point road loss to Denver.
So progress it has been for the Clippers this month, and progress it was for the Clippers on Sunday. Del Negro said his team is more vocal on defense than ever before, and it's believable. L.A. has made some significant strides in recent weeks, and the Clippers are one win away -- Sacramento looms Monday -- from a .500 record in the month of December.
They've got a long way to go, though. L.A.'s .290 winning percentage is still good for fifth worst in the NBA, but that tends to happen when a team wins only one of its first 14 games.
Said Randy Foye, who has not had a winning season in five years as a pro: "We knew we were going to struggle early. We didn't know we were going to struggle that much."
Final notes: Aminu drew a flagrant foul from Pietrus in the fourth quarter, sparking a tense moment between the two squads as Griffin and Pietrus had words. Forward Rasual Butler did not play in Sunday's game. It was the first time since he was traded to the Clippers in the summer of 2009 -- a 112-game span -- that he didn't get on the court. The last time the Clippers won four out of five games was almost a full year ago, in a five-out-of-six streak that stretched from Dec. 27, 2009 to Jan. 10, 2010.