After trailing by as much as 18, the Suns chipped away at the Clippers until the newly acquired Sun Mickael Pietrus drained a corner three with 22 seconds left to cut the Clipper lead to 1. It was a perfect time for a normal Clipper team to miss one of two free throws and give up a 2 to send it into overtime where they would be without Blake Griffin or allow a 3 to suffer another heartbreaking loss. VDN has shown the ability to motivate his players and handle the testy Baron Davis, but it would be rare to describe him as an excellent in game strategist. Even I got nervous when he called the timeout, figuring it would give the team more time to botch the last 22 seconds. Except VDN did the exact opposite, he substituted Randy Foye for DeAndre Jordan and directly inbounded the ball to him before Grant Hill fouled Foye. Foye is the team’s best free throw shooter at 88.9 percent and he proved his mettle by only allowing the ball to touch the net on his two attempts. The possibility of the Suns sending it into overtime still seemed like a probability since they were only down 3 with plenty of time left on the clock. Pietrus had just knocked down a three and Nash had transformed into “We’re not losing” mode. Nash brought the ball in and found a pesky Baron defending so he handed off the ball to Pietrus with plenty of time to get the shot, but Gordon fought his way through Baron and Nash to get to Pietrus and quickly rob him of the ball, snap it out to Baron who found Aminu for the game-sealing dunk. And even in all this mess, the hysteria of winning a close game, not not losing, Blake still managed to put his stamp from the bench as he was caught on camera joyously screaming “F@%& you guys!” to the rest of the Suns.
It was only fitting that Blake still stamped himself on the last moment, because his game today was far beyond his ever stellar dunks and his Christmas dinner stuffed box score. The entire attitude of the team stemmed from him, and there were three moments, other than yelling vociferously from the bench, that really caught my attention:
1) Eric Bledsoe picked off a pass and outran everyone, including Blake, for an easy 2 points. The crowd booed Bledsoe because they wanted to see yet another highlight from Blake, and really, I can’t blame them. But Blake knew that as entertaining as this game of basketball is, as he is, his job is to try and win. As Bledsoe and Blake ran back up the court, they were laughing, and one can only assume it was about Bledsoe taking the right shot and still getting booed. I like that he fostered not only good will between his teammate, but good habits as well.
2) Al-Farouq Aminu cleanly swiped Grant Hill, broke down the court with Hill still on his hip and Pietrus catching up and as Farouq went up for the lay-up, Pietrus yanked Farouq on the arm, toppling Farouq into the photographers. Earlier in the season, I think the Clippers would have lightly picked up Farouq and let Pietrus get away without an earful. Not this time. Blake was the first guy to pick up Farouq and to get in Pietrus’ face. He made sure Pietrus knew if there was going to be a hard foul, there was more to pay than just the Flagrant-1. He had to mess with Blake and the Clippers, too.
3) Just after the take down of Farouq, Nash found himself at the top of the key and went straight to the rim for a lay-up, and as the ball went in the hoop, Nash tripped up and slid into the photographers, pretty routine. Except that Blake is the one inbounding the ball, and he sees that Nash is down. So Blake sprints as soon as he passes the ball, assuring himself that he gets in front of Nash as the two run down the court. Then Blake slows up, knocking Nash out of rhythm and opening up a lane. Baron hits Blake in stride and Blake lays the ball in as Hill hipchecks Blake onto the ground. And it doesn’t end there. Even after chippy game, Blake didn’t overreact, nor did he avoid the emotion. He bounced up before Hill, and walked right by him, made eye contact and celebrated the play with the rest of the team. Smart play, after tough play, after smart play. And you could see the entire team feed off of it.
The Clippers fed off of Blake’s energy to the point where Blake didn’t even need to be on the floor. They held up even after Blake fouled out, which seemed freak, more than endemic of a larger problem. He had three fouls on jump shooter, two where he barely touched them, and one where Baron and Blake were challenging and Baron accidentally knocked Blake into Nash. And the last blocking call was basically a 50-50 call that Blake should have avoided. It should be mentioned that the fouls seemed disproportionate with the rest of the calls in the game, as the Suns shoved Blake to the ground on multiple occasions. They even let Grant Hill play very physically against Blake. Still, the Clippers felt like they had a spirit. They rose above the calls and just played basketball. Finally they have identity. So Ryan Gomes offensive rebound and the putback with 2:24 left and Blake Griffin out of the game felt in sync with the scrappy identity of the team. They didn’t even hang their heads after DeAndre played GREAT defense on Nash, pinning him low only to have Nash sling it out to Pietrus in the corner for 3.
In all this talk about Blake Griffin and his “stamp on the game,” I don’t want to minimize the effect that Gordon had on the game, because he was truly integral. Not only did he come up with that final steal on Pietrus, but Gordon also went 4 for 10 from beyond the arc, finally looking like he has his stroke back, and, just as much as Blake, Gordon has backbone. He’s resilient and feisty. The way he fought through that last screen to pickpocket Pietrus displayed his tough-nose play. He had the integral part, the defensive stop, but it was someone else, Aminu, that dunked.
The team has won 8 of their last 17, almost .500 ball, signs of improvement. But even more important than the improved record is that they have an identity.
A note on Steve Nash: With 1:36 in the first quarter and the Suns down 12, Nash drove to the basket, taking the onus of scoring on himself. He missed. It was a tough shot, a drifting 12 footer over DeAndre, but he looked flat out dejected as the shot clanked off the heel of the rim. As good as Nash is, he has shrugged off countless shots without appearing disgruntled, but on this occasion, with Eric Bledsoe leaping for the rebound and jetting down the court, Nash walked into the corner of the court and hung his head. One of the more admirable qualities of Steve Nash is his resiliency. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen him do anything like this in the first quarter of a road game in December. I’ve seen him heartbroken after a playoff loss, but never hang his head early in a game. He is the unquestioned leader of this team, keeping his head up is crucial to the success of the team, and yet, this time, with his re-designed and still struggling team down to one of the worst teams in the NBA, Steve Nash looked broken. It was only momentary, he continued to play hard in the game, posting 21 points and 15 assists, but in that moment there was a level of despondent awareness of the mortality of the team’s season or maybe his own career.