When the Phoenix Suns lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night, they dropped to ninth place in the Western Conference, a half game behind the Utah Jazz. With the Jazz facing significantly weaker opponents in the final week of the season, the Suns have their work cut out for them to avoid missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since the 80s. Thursday night's game against the Los Angeles Clippers became huge. Coach Alvin Gentry didn't want to call it a "must-win" -- maybe it was just victory-required."
In a rough and tumble contest, the Suns came away with the crucial 93-90 win, coming from behind late in the fourth quarter. Steve Nash didn't have his best game, finishing with 13 points and only six assists against six turnovers, but he scored six of his 13 points in the final quarter, including a layup to tie the game with 75 seconds remaining and what proved to be the game-winning free throws with 25 seconds left.
The NBA may regret this reality, but the momentum in the game swung towards the Suns when Robin Lopez committed a hard foul on Blake Griffin as the Clipper star went in for a lay up. The officials reviewed the play and issued a Flagrant Foul 2 to Lopez, which carries a penalty of two free throws, the ball out of bounds, and ejection. But in the inevitable melee after Lopez came across Griffin's head and neck to send him to the floor, the officials also issued a technical foul to Mo Williams of the Clippers. Griffin, a 52 percent foul shooter, made just one of two, while Sebastian Telfair, a 77 percenter, made the technical free throw, and the net effect of Lopez' foul was a wash. Nor was Lopez's ejection a punishment as starter Marcin Gortat returned for the final six minutes.
The Clippers led by three at the time of the foul, and Chris Paul made a jumper on the subsequent possession to stretch the lead to five. But the Suns were suddenly energized on both ends of the floor and outscored the Clippers, 8-2, over the next two minutes to take a one point lead with 3:18 remaining. After the Clippers regained a three point lead, Jared Dudley knotted it again from behind the arc. There were three lead changes and two ties in the final two minutes, but the Suns scored their final five points from the line, and the Clippers missed a chance to take the lead when Telfair blocked Paul's layup attempt and then Williams' three pointer rimmed out.
Dudley's 18 led a balanced Suns attack that featured five players in double figures. Channing Frye had 16 and Gortat finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds. For the Clippers, Paul finished with 19 points and 10 assists, but was just 6-19 from the field, one of his worst shooting performances of the season. Caron Butler scored 17, while Griffin had 16 -- with all but two free throws coming in the first quarter.
The win puts the Suns in a much better position in the playoff race, but their postseason slot is by no means assured. They do control their own destiny, as they own the season series tie breaker with both the Jazz and the tenth place Houston Rockets and they still have a game remaining against the Jazz left. In all likelihood, Tuesday's meeting in Utah between the Jazz and the Suns will determine the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western Conference.
With the loss, the Clippers drop a full game behind the Lakers in the chase for third place in the Western Conference, and their lead over fifth place Memphis shrinks to a game in the loss column. The Lakers own the tie-breaker over the Clippers while the Clippers own the tie-breaker over the Grizzlies, so increasingly it appears that the Clippers will finish in fourth, where they've been for a couple of weeks now. Rising to third is still possible, but became less likely with Thursday's loss, while falling to fifth is unlikely, but is still on the table because of the loss. Playoffstatus.com pegs the likelihood that the Clippers will finish fourth at 70 percent with a symmetrical 15 percent chance that they could climb to third of fall to fourth.
For all of Thursday's NBA box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.