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.
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