PHOENIX — If Clippers big man Blake Griffin was playing, chances are Suns rookie Marquese Chriss was, too.
Chriss got every defensive assignment on the All-Star until Phoenix pushed itself back into the game late in the third quarter. Then, he found a seat on the bench as the Suns gunned for a win.
Wednesday was a lesson, a humbling one for the rookie forward who came off a career-high, 20-point effort a game prior.
Griffin used finesse to stump the physical, athletic 19-year-old, beating him on the block and in transition while scoring and passing to slice up the Suns’ defense on pick-and-rolls — as ball handler and roller. In his third game back from injury, Griffin scored 29 points on 10-for-14 shooting in the Clippers’ 124-114 win in Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Chriss’ rookie hazing also included this unnecessary dime.
Whoaaaaaa there Blake. pic.twitter.com/acOGc8aa1C
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) February 2, 2017
Another play, Griffin spun off Chriss to leave the rookie standing.
“‘Quese have to get used to that,” Suns coach Earl Watson said, adding he will need to get creative to cover his youngsters defensively. “I think it’s something that has to happen. He has to get that experience.”
Phoenix wasted Eric Bledsoe’s 41 points and eight assists, his third 40-plus point game in the last six outings.
Overall, the Suns shot 41 percent and struggled to produce effectively aside from at the free throw line, where they matched Los Angeles’ aggression by getting to the line 35 times. Devin Booker added 20 points to extend his streak of 20 or more points to 14 games, but he did so on 7-of-19 shooting.
But the Clippers’ 52 percent shooting was the main concern.
They honed in on Chriss and fellow rookie Dragan Bender on offense — Bender returned after missing four games due to ankle soreness. Los Angeles forced Chriss to switch onto guards when he wasn’t isolated against Griffin. On the other end, the Clippers aggressively helped to stop Bledsoe and Booker at the expense of letting Chriss find himself open for jumpers.
It worked: Chriss shot 3-of-15 on the evening, closing with nine points, five rebounds and four steals.
“I just think the shots didn’t fall,” Chriss said.
Chriss stayed out of foul trouble, but like his team as a whole, the lack of fouling through the first three quarters made for turnstile defense despite the Suns shoring up their poor three-point defense that burned them against Memphis a game prior. Griffin led the way when it came to scoring efficiency.
“I think just playing my position and angles, he’s extremely explosive and athletic,” Chriss said of Griffin. “I think he plays off of angles. I think when he has you beat off an angle, it’s kind of hard to recover.”
Los Angeles opened on a 7-0 run before a Tyson Chandler dunk got the Suns on the board two minutes into the first quarter and went ahead 14-4 off a Griffin fastbreak alley-oop slam. Behind 13 points and three assists from Griffin, the Clippers led 38-31 after 12 minutes by shooting 67 percent from the floor.
The pace slowed when the second units played relatively even before the Suns starters closed the gap to 62-59 at halftime despite shooting 38 percent to 59 percent for the Clippers. The difference? Phoenix scored seven more points at the foul line and turned the ball over three times.
Before the Suns made a mid-third quarter push to cut an 83-71 deficit down to 92-88 heading to the fourth quarter, it was Chriss’ dunk attempt and hard fall on a foul by the DeAndre Jordan that earned the Los Angeles center an ejection with five minutes left in the period. It was seemingly life for the Suns as Los Angeles was forced to go small, but backup big man Brandon Bass scored eight points in less than six minutes against Bender — among other Phoenix defensive breakdowns.
“They got some points scored on them,” Watson said, admitting the Clippers targeted his rookies. “It is what it is. If it’s not them, it’s going to go right back to Devin Booker, and that’s just the, you know, strategy of basketball. Those guys, they have to go through that experience and they have to fail or succeed.”
“That was the biggest mistake people made with him in the draft, was that he is so raw he has no clue. He has a very high basketball IQ. His shot is probably one of the best of all the three — they’re even, if worse, if anything is comparable. His three-point ability, the dribble-to-pass, his tenacity as far as on-the-court aggressiveness and his awareness of off-the-court of watching and studying players is as high as anyone I’ve ever seen as a rookie.” — Watson, before the game, about Marquese Chriss’ basketball IQ despite his relative lack of playing experience
The Suns visit Sacramento at 8:30 p.m. MST Friday where they face DeMarcus Cousins, who was recently tied to Phoenix in John Gambadoro’s report regarding the two squads’ trade discussions.
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