Hunter 2-0 as coach after Suns surprise Clippers
By BOB BAUM
PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns are 2-0 under Lindsey Hunter, and the Los Angeles Clippers dearly miss Chris Paul.
Goran Dragic scored 19 of his 24 points in the first half and the Suns held on to beat the Los Angeles Clippers 93-88 on Thursday night, giving Hunter his second victory in two nights as interim coach after he replaced the fired Alvin Gentry.
Marcin Gortat added 15 points, including two free throws with 23.3 seconds left. Luis Scola and Markieff Morris had 14 apiece for the Suns, who have won consecutive games for the first time since a season-high, four-game winning streak ended on Dec. 19. Dragic also had eight assists.
The Clippers, who lost their third straight, were without Paul for the fifth time in seven games because of a bruised right kneecap. The team is 3-2 without him, and he’s expected to miss two more games.
Jamal Crawford led Los Angeles with 21 points. Eric Bledsoe scored 15 and Blake Griffin had 12. Griffin said he reinjured his left ankle early in the game but still played 36 minutes.
“Our offense was stagnant,” Griffin said. “Our defense wasn’t great. We did a poor job and it starts with me. I have to do a better job of setting the tone early and being a leader out there, especially with Chris not out there.”
The Clippers shot just under 40 percent for the game, 33 percent (7 for 21) in the fourth quarter.
“Our focus is to create a defensive mentality, to create a defensive presence,” Hunter said. “Our guys are working hard to do it. It’s a difficult thing to just change like that. To see every last guy really buying into it and realizing that regardless of how you shoot the ball, if you can defend you always have a chance to win a game, and our guys have been phenomenal in that area.”
Phoenix improved to 15-28 and pulled out of the cellar in the Western Conference, one-half game ahead of New Orleans.
“When you change a coach, you always get a little bit of a reaction from everybody,” Scola said. “Everybody wants to play a little bit harder and everybody wants to do a little bit more. This is just a critical situation and everybody gives a little bit more of themselves. Our challenge is to maintain this.”
The Clippers slipped to 32-12, 1 games behind West leaders Oklahoma City and San Antonio. The three-game losing streak is Los Angeles’ second-longest of the season.
The Suns, who won at Sacramento on Wednesday night, scored six in a row to go up 86-79 on Gortat’s layup on a pass from Dragic with three minutes left. But the Clippers reeled off the next six points.
Bledsoe blocked Dragic’s shot and Crawford sank a 3-pointer from the corner to cut the lead to 86-85 with 26 seconds remaining.
After Gortat’s two free throws with 23 seconds left put Phoenix up three, Crawford was fouled on a drive to the basket, narrowly missing a chance at a game-tying, three-point play. Instead, Crawford, an 88 percent free-throw shooter this season, missed one of two from the line to leave the Clippers down two.
Phoenix got the inbounds pass to Shannon Brown, who was fouled on what officials ruled was a clear path to the basket. Brown made both free throws to make it 90-86 with 15.4 seconds left and the Suns retained possession. One free throw by Morris and two by Dragic wrapped up the Suns’ scoring.
Hunter became the fourth coach in Suns history to win his first two games. The other three — Gentry, Scott Skiles and Jerry Colangelo — also did it as midseason replacements.
The wins came despite a rocky change of power. Earlier in the day, Elston Turner confirmed he has left the organization after being passed over in favor of Hunter, who was director of player development and had never coached before. Dan Majerle also left as an assistant coach after being passed over for the interim job.
Dragic scored the final nine Suns points in the first half, the last two on free throws after coach Vinny Del Negro and Crawford were called for technicals with 0.3 seconds left to put the Suns up 50-46 at the break.
Crawford scored seven straight points, the last two on a drive, to put Los Angeles ahead 62-59 with 4:17 left in the third quarter. Phoenix finished the quarter with a 6-2 spurt to lead 68-66 entering the fourth.
The fourth quarter has usually been kind to the Clippers. Not on this night.
“We are very comfortable in the fourth quarter,” Crawford said. “There has been a little bit of slippage but we have to know exactly where we want to go in the fourth quarter and what we want to do. I think that is where we were at previously and I think we will be able to get back to that.”
NOTES: Suns C Jermaine O’Neal missed his second game in a row because of an irregular heartbeat. .. The Clippers lost four straight from Nov. 21 to Nov. 26., but had gone 24-5 since then. … Ex-Sun Grant Hill got a warm reception from the crowd when he entered late in the first quarter for the Clippers. … The Suns have won 11 of their last 12 games against the Clippers in Phoenix. They had won 10 straight before losing in their last meeting on Dec. 23. … Four NBA interim coaches have won their first two games this season.
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