PHOENIX — Winning Pacific Division titles is hardly old hat for the Los Angeles Clippers, but guard Chris Paul and his teammates have goals that involve hanging banners of a different kind.
Paul scored 20 points and put his team ahead to stay on a 32-foot, 3-point bomb with 1:48 to play as the Clippers rallied from a 17-point, third-quarter deficit to beat the Phoenix Suns 112-108 Wednesday.
The win, combined with a Golden State Warriors’ loss to the San Antonio Spurs, clinched a second straight division title for the Clippers — the only two in franchise history. Los Angeles (54-22) also moved within 1 1/2 games of the idle Oklahoma City Thunder for second place in the Western Conference.
“I didn’t realize that we did it,” Paul said when told the win clinched the Pacific. “That’s nice, I guess, but it doesn’t really say much. We won the division title last year, and we lost in the first round (of the playoffs).
“Things are different. Last year, we would have known this was the game that we had a chance to win the division. Now it’s all about winning games and getting ready for what’s ahead.”
Forward Blake Griffin and guard Darren Collison scored 23 points each for the Clippers, who ended a five-game road trip with four straight wins.
“It’s something to be proud of, but by no means is that what we’re aiming for,” Griffin said of the division crown. “We have much bigger goals.”
Paul, who handed out nine assists, added three steals in the game, becoming the first player since Allen Iverson (2007-08) to record three or more steals in eight consecutive games. However, it was the bench play of guard Willie Green, forwards Jared Dudley and Hedo Turkoglu and center Glen Davis that spurred the comeback and set up the win.
“We’ve shown a lot of resiliency, and we’ve been doing it all year long,” Collision said. “It’s the kind of thing you want to take into the playoffs. We just find a way. No matter who is out, who is struggling, we find a way. We have a shooter replacing another shooter. This is the best and most versatile team I’ve even been on.”
Forward Marcus Morris scored 16 points and guards Gerald Green and Goran Dragic had 15 each for the Suns, who lost their second straight and missed an opportunity to pass the Memphis Grizzlies for sole possession of seventh place in the West.
“We had this game almost in our pockets,” Dragic said. “In the fourth quarter, I think we played wrong. We had too many (isolation) situations, we didn’t share the ball, and they were contesting our shots. We didn’t get back on defense and they were making open 3s, getting fouled and shooting free throws.
“If you want to be a playoff team, you can’t allow that to happen.”
The Suns, Grizzlies and Mavericks are all 44-31 with seven games remaining as they fight for the final two Western Conference postseason spots. Phoenix is currently in ninth place when tiebreakers are enforced.
“We can’t worry about other teams. It was a home game for us, and we had a lead,” Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek said. “It’s like a broken record. We tell them all the time, we can’t have a two- or three-minute lull against these top teams.”
The Clippers outscored the Suns 34-17 in the fourth quarter, with Dudley scoring seven, including two free throws to ice the game with 8.1 seconds left. The Suns scored four points in the final 3:50 after a layup by guard Eric Bledsoe gave them a 104-99 lead.
Paul scored on a driving layup before Collison fed forward Matt Barnes for an alley-oop lay-in. Dudley gave the Clippers a 105-104 lead with 2:38 left before Bledsoe put the Suns back up with a 9-foot floating jumper. However, with the shot clock winding down, Paul drilled his long shot, and the Clippers closed it out down the stretch.
“You probably wouldn’t believe it, but it actually felt good leaving my hand,” Paul said.
The Suns seemingly took control midway through the third quarter. With the game tied at 69, Phoenix reeled off a 15-2 run, with back-to-back offensive put-backs by forward P.J. Tucker pushing the lead to 84-71. Tucker, who had 10 points and 11 rebounds, added a three-point play with 1:49 left to give the Suns their biggest lead at 91-74.
The Clippers scored the final four points of the third quarter, added a 7-0 run early in the fourth and just kept coming. Five points from Davis and back-to-back hoops from Collison shaved Phoenix’s lead to 97-91, and 3-pointers from Dudley and Barnes inched the Clippers within 99-97.
“That second unit even lifted my spirits,” Paul said.”(The starters) came to the bench saying, ‘Man, we can’t get nothing to go right.’ But the way they started that fourth quarter off, it was like, ‘OK, it’s on, let’s go.’
“It says a lot about our team, and it’s been that way all season. We never give up. We just keep fighting.”
NOTES: The Suns are 13-0 this season when G Goran Dragic and G Eric Bledsoe each score at least 16 points. The last five Phoenix wins are among those 13, but neither player hit the mark Wednesday. … Clippers G Chris Paul and Allen Iverson (2007-08) are the only players to have eight straight games with three-plus steals since the start of the 2003-04 season. … The Suns (18.8 per game) and the Clippers (18.5) rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the league in fast-break points. … Phoenix F Markieff Morris leads the league in points off the bench this season (1,008). He joins Leandro Barbosa (2006-07 and 2007-08), Rodney Rogers (1999-2000), Dan Majerle (1991-92) and Eddie Johnson (1988-89) as Suns reserves to reach the 1,000-point plateau. Barbosa, Rogers and Johnson all won the NBA’s Sixth Man Award in the season they hit the milestone.
Rockets spoil Griffin’s return in testy affair
If James Harden needed any extra motivation against the Los Angeles Clippers, he found it in the first half.
Harden scored 34 points, and the Rockets held on for a 100-98 victory over the Clippers in a sometimes testy affair on Sunday at Staples Center.
Point guard Chris Paul, who finished with 23 points, missed a contested shot at the buzzer that would have forced overtime.
“It was very important for us just to go out there and play well,” said Harden, who hit seven of 16 shots from the floor, three of five from 3-point range and 17 of 18 free throws. “The last two games we kind of struggled a little bit, but we got our pop back a little bit today, and it was a good win for us.”
Harden provided much of that pop, particularly in the second quarter after Clippers forward Matt Barnes was whistled for a flagrant-1 foul after pushing Harden to the court at 6:02. Harden scored 15 of his 18 points in the period after that, leading the Rockets to a 58-50 halftime lead.
Did the flagrant foul add more fuel for the Rockets’ All-Star guard and MVP candidate?
“Yeah. Things like that are fun,” said Harden, who had 24 points in the first half. “We have fun, we got boosted off of that.”
The win ended a two-game skid for the Rockets (44-22). Houston forward Trevor Ariza scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds, while forward Terrence Jones added 16 points and 12 boards.
“This was a win that we needed, especially on the road,” Ariza said. “Going into the home stretch, these are the types of games we have to win.”
Los Angeles forward Blake Griffin returned after missing 15 games due to surgery on his right elbow. Griffin had 11 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, but committed five turnovers in 41 minutes.
“I didn’t think I played well,” said Griffin, who managed 4-of-10 shooting. “I was out of rhythm. Way too many turnovers, obviously.”
Barnes scored 19 points and guard J.J. Redick had 15 for the Clippers (42-24), who fell into a tie for the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference standings with the Dallas Mavericks.
Paul lamented a host of turnovers in the defeat, including a critical one involving center DeAndre Jordan.
“I had some bad turnovers,” said Paul, who committed three of the Clippers’ 20 miscues compared to 13 for the Rockets. “On one, I drove it off DeAndre’s foot, the other one I lost towards the end of the half. We have to take better care of the ball. We still had an opportunity to win, but we just didn’t do it.”
The Clippers came back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. Paul scored seven straight points, capping it with a 3-point basket to tie the score at 96 with 3:05 left in the game. Houston got a 3-pointer by Jones, but Barnes countered with a basket to keep Los Angeles within 99-98 with 1:35 left. Los Angeles, though, never scored again.
Griffin got a steal as Ariza attempted a pass to Harden, but Ariza drew a charging foul as Griffin bolted to the bucket with 12 seconds remaining. Griffin remained unhappy about the call after the game.
“If I speak on that, I’ll get fined,” Griffin said.
Harden hit one of two foul shots with 8.9 seconds left, capping the scoring before Paul failed to connect on a jumper in the lane with Ariza defending.
The Rockets outscored Los Angeles 36-20 in the second quarter despite making just 38.5 percent of their shots compared to 44.4 percent for the Clippers. Overall, the Clippers hit 43.9 percent to 37.2 percent for the Rockets. They also held an edge in 3-point shooting, converting 12 of 26 attempts to seven of 30 for Houston. The Rockets, though were 29 of 36 from the foul line to 14 of 24 for Los Angeles.
Jordan finished with 20 rebounds and four blocks.
NOTES: F Blake Griffin’s return benefits PG Chris Paul as much as any Clipper. “Teams have been able to trap (Paul) far more than they can when Blake is on the floor because of (Griffin’s) ability to pass,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I’m sure CP is the happiest of all to have him back.” … Rivers isn’t sure if injured G Jamal Crawford would return before the playoffs. Crawford has missed six games with a right calf contusion. … Rockets C Dwight Howard sat out his 18th game with a right knee edema. “He’s doing everything he can, he’s trying to get better, but until you’re on the floor, it’s impossible to say,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said regarding Howard’s return. … Both clubs resume play Tuesday. Houston hosts the Orlando Magic, while Los Angeles plays the Charlotte Hornets at Staples Center.
NBA notebook: Clippers’ Griffin cleared to return
Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin, out the last 15 games with an elbow injury, was cleared to return Sunday against the Houston Rockets.
Griffin had surgery five weeks ago to remove a staph infection in his right elbow.
“He said, ‘I’m ready,'” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before Sunday’s game. “Yesterday the trainers called me and said, ‘If he can go, he can go. He’s been cleared.'”
Rivers said timing likely will be an adjustment for Griffin.
“Timing is timing,” Rivers said. “You lose it when you don’t play in an NBA game. Sometimes you come back and you play great the first game and then you lose your timing. Sometimes it doesn’t. As far as the way we play, it won’t be hard for him at all.”
In 51 games this season, Griffin is averaging 22.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists.
–Spurs guard Manu Ginobili had to be helped off the floor late in the third quarter against Minnesota on Sunday. Ginobili went down with 43 seconds left in the quarter and with the Spurs leading the Timberwolves by 30 points.
He was helped off the floor and immediately was led to the locker room. He did not put any weight on his right leg as he was carried off the court.
Up to that point, Ginobili had scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting in 19 minutes. He battled a stomach illness last week, forcing him to miss a game against Toronto and play limited minutes against Cleveland on March 12.
–Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr sent emails to three fans who were disappointed that he rested several prominent players, including All-Star guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, in Friday’s loss to the Nuggets in Denver.
“There’s two really good sides to the story,” Kerr said, according to the Associated Press report. “Nobody’s wrong here. … I can’t argue with them.”
Kerr received an email from a family that drove from South Dakota to Denver to see Curry, Thompson and the entertaining Warriors play. But Curry, Thompson, center Andrew Bogut and reserve guard Andre Iguodala did not play so they could be rested, and the Warriors lost 114-103.
“I heard from some fans. I received a few emails, stories about driving in from a long distance off and spending a lot of money on tickets,” Kerr said. “I have great sympathy for those people. I really do. It’s a tricky one. It’s something that I think Adam Silver is trying to address through the scheduling shuffling that he’s talking about.
–The Dallas Mavericks recalled center/forward Dwight Powell from the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League on Sunday.
The 6-foot-11, 240-pound Powell played in one game during his most recent assignment to the D-League and finished with 28 points, five rebounds and two assists to lead the Legends in a 115-89 win over the Austin Spurs on Saturday night.
Powell has appeared in 19 games for the Mavericks this season, averaging 3.5 points and 2.2 rebounds in 10.0 minutes per game.
–The Atlanta Hawks signed forward Austin Daye to a 10-day contract Sunday.
Daye appeared in 26 games (four starts) earlier this season with the San Antonio Spurs, averaging 4.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in 10.3 minutes.
In 10 games this season with the Erie BayHawks of the NBA Development League, Daye has averaged 16.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 blocks in 28.5 minutes.
–The Miami Heat recalled guard Zoran Dragic from the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the NBA Development League on Sunday.
Zoran appeared in four games (one start) and averaged 16.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.50 steals, helping the Skyforce to a 3-1 record over that span.
Ginobili sprains ankle as Spurs rout Timberwolves
SAN ANTONIO — The fourth and final meeting of the season between the San Antonio Spurs and the Minnesota Timberwolves looked a lot like the first three.
Forward Kawhi Leonard scored a team-high 15 points as San Antonio defeated Minnesota 123-97 Sunday night at the AT&T Center. The only downside for the Spurs was losing guard Manu Ginobili due to a sprained right ankle.
Leonard was one of seven San Antonio players to score in double figures as the Spurs (41-24) completed a season sweep of Minnesota (14-51). The average margin of victory in the games as 23.
The Spurs earned their seventh win in eight games.
Guard Kevin Martin scored 19 points and guard Zach LaVine added 18 for the Timberwolves, who were missing many players on the final game of a four-game road trip. Minnesota lost its fourth game in a row.
“We moved (the ball) well, but it wasn’t a fair fight,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “Their guys are devastated by their injuries, so I thought we had good focus under the circumstances. They still played the right way, so that was the best part of the game.”
The Spurs pulled away in the third quarter behind a 13-0 run. The Wolves only shot 27.3 percent in the third, and the Spurs made 63.6 of their field goals while outscoring Minnesota 33-13 in the period.
“That’s what great teams do,” Martin said. “We knew they were going to do that. Kawhi Leonard had a first half that he probably didn’t want to have, and I’m sure Pop let him know about it. He came out in the second half and changed the whole game.”
Ginobili had to be helped off the court late in the third quarter, and he did not return. He was hurt with 43 seconds left in the quarter and with the Spurs up by 30 points.
Ginobili was taken immediately to the locker room and did not put any weight on his right leg, and he will be out for a to 10 days, Popovich said. Ginobili finished the game with 11 points in 19 minutes.
San Antonio forward Jeff Ayres sustained a rib contusion in the second half and also sat out the rest of the contest.
Sunday night marked the first time San Antonio stepped back on the court since a 128-125 overtime loss to the Cavaliers on Thursday that included a 57-point performance by Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving. The loss snapped the Spurs’ six game winning streak.
Minnesota dressed only eight players. Forward Kevin Garnett (knee), guard Ricky Rubio (ankle) and center Nikola Pekovic (ankle) were all ruled out by coach Flip Saunders before the game.
“It wasn’t a fair fight,” Saunders said. “We just weren’t alert mentally, as far as trying to play. They just mauled us basically.”
The Spurs took advantage of Minnesota’s depleted lineup and jumped out to a quick 8-2 lead behind guard Tony Parker, who made his first four shots of the game and finished the night with 11 points and eight assists. Minnesota trailed 60-50 at halftime.
The Spurs led by as many as 39 points in the fourth quarter.
Even though San Antonio was facing a team without a full complement of players, forward Tim Duncan said the final game of a 5-1 homestand was a sign of good things to come.
“We’re turning that corner,” said Duncan, who finished with 10 points, six rebounds and six assists. “I think we’re heading the right direction. The huge loss last game, I felt like we gave that one away. But other than that, we’re on the right track.”
San Antonio will hit the road for back-to-back games in New York on Tuesday and in Milwaukee on Wednesday. The Timberwolves head home to face the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night.
NOTES: San Antonio moved percentage points ahead of the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers for fifth place in the Western Conference standings. The Clippers lost Sunday, while the Mavericks were idle. … Minnesota F Kevin Garnett (knee) missed his fourth game in a row. … Spurs G Manu Ginobili was back in action against Minnesota after battling a stomach illness that caused him to miss the team’s game against Toronto on Tuesday and play less than 10 minutes against Cleveland on Thursday.