NBA Basketball

Clippers try to continue mastery of Suns

PHOENIX -- Devin Booker can hit the 3.

He can also hit the free.

Booker dazzled while winning the NBA 3-point shooting contest last weekend, and he enters the post-break portion of the season with a streak of 60 make free throws.

If basketball were a one-man game, Phoenix would be in wonderful shape.

As it is, the Suns (18-41) will attempt to reverse other trends when they play host to the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday, the second of a back-to-back set for the Clippers after a 134-127 loss at Golden State.

The Suns lost their last seven, 12 of 13 and 15 of 17 before the All-Star break, and the Clippers (30-27) have given them problems all season.

The Clippers won the first two games of the season series by 42 and 13 points, and Suns coach Earl Watson was replaced after the 130-88 loss in the third game of the season Oct. 21.

Los Angeles is 5-2 since trading forward Blake Griffin to Detroit on Jan. 29 and over a longer time frame is 13-6.

Despite the recent uptick, the Clippers are one game out of the Western Conference playoff picture. At the same time, they are only 2 1/2 games behind fifth-place Oklahoma City, a measly one in the loss column. The four teams ahead of them each have 26 losses.

"It's going to come down to teams playing well coming out of the break and taking care of business," Clippers coach Doc Rivers told the Los Angeles Times before the start of the second half.

"We just have to win every game ... that's got to be your mindset. You know you're not going to win every game, but you got to have that mindset."

The Suns are one of six teams with a league-low 18 victories, but they will not "strategically rest" players as they did with guard Eric Bledsoe last season in an attempt to move up in the draft.

"If we win a few more games and end up getting slotted lower in the lottery, then we're fine with that," Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told the Arizona Republic on Wednesday.

Memphis, Sacramento, Dallas, Orlando and Atlanta also enter post-break play with 18 wins, but only Atlanta has as many as 41 losses.

Suns point guard Elfrid Payton has shown well since being acquired from Orlando for a second-round draft pick at the trade deadline Feb. 8, the price so cheap because Payton can become a restricted free agent at the end of the season.

Payton had 13 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds in the Suns' 107-97 loss at Utah before the break, his third game with the Suns and first with Booker at off guard. It was his first triple-double of the season and ninth of his career.

"The guy has started a lot of games in the league, knows how to play the position," Suns interim coach Jay Triano told reporters. "He can get in the paint. He's got a great mid-range game. Makes other players on the floor around him better. That's something we've been looking for."

Payton is averaging 20.3 points, 8.7 assists and 8.3 rebounds in three games in Phoenix.

"Our competitiveness was at a high level through the whole game ... that's something I haven't seen in the last two games for the most part," Payton told reporters after the Utah game.

Booker had 28 points, five rebounds and three assists in the Utah game after missing the previous four with a hip injury. He made 6-of-14 3-pointers, tying seasons highs for makes and attempts.

Since beating Dallas on Jan. 31, the Suns are 0-for-February and have lost by 32, five, 19, 48, 10, 26 and 10 points. The 48-point loss to San Antonio on Feb. 7 tied a franchise-worst set on opening night.

Lou Williams, who leads the Clippers with a 23.2 scoring average, had a season-high 12 assists against Golden State. He has scored at least 15 points in 28 straight games.

Tobias Harris, the principle piece acquired for Griffin, had 22 points, six rebounds and five assists against the Warriors.

Updated February 23, 2018

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