BARNES’ BIG NIGHT ‘BROKE SUNS SPIRIT’

Matt Barnes goes for a team high 28 points against the Suns.

PHOENIX – You knew it was Matt Barnes’ night when after his third consecutive 3-pointer of the decisive third quarter on Tuesday, he turned to midcourt and holstered both hands near his hips.

The oxygen in U.S. Airways Center was whisked out of the arena as if Barnes had blown a hole in the side of an airline cabin. The Suns called two timeouts in the stretch, a 37-19 period in the Clippers’ favor in which Barnes scored 18 of his season-high 28 points. 

“If he didn’t get hot, we’d probably have been in for a long game the way that team was playing,” Darren Collison said. “It seemed like every shot that Matt hit it was deflating for them and gave us momentum.”

The momentum spurred the Clippers to a 104-96 win over the Phoenix Suns and it continued a string of productive, and game-changing, performances from the 33-year-old Barnes.

He has made 20 of his last 39 3-point attempts, dating back to the Clippers’ Feb. 21 loss to the Grizzlies. In their victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder two days later Barnes nailed 6-of-10 3-pointers. But nothing in that six-game run has compared to Tuesday.

The Suns had captured a 12-point lead early in the third quarter and Barnes responded by scoring 16 of the first 20 points of the period for the Clippers. He made all four of his 3-pointers in a 4:34 span, including grabbing a defensive rebound, dribbling the length of the floor and pulling up from the left wing without hesitation. He was so hot he couldn’t get back on offense fast enough, whether it was out of a timeout, getting a dead ball back in play or simply sprinting the floor after a flood of Clippers’ stops altered the game on the defensive end of the floor.

“When the basket’s that big you want to keep getting looks,” said Barnes, who made 12 of his first 13 shots and finished 12-for-17 from the field. “It’s not going to be Blake [Griffin] and Chris [Paul] every night. I think we’ve got a deep team and you have to be accountable for everybody and we’ve been showing that lately.

“I felt like I had good looks every time and I had a little bit of space and was able to get the shot up. Every time it left my hands it felt good, so it was just one of those nights.”

It certainly was. But it was not just Barnes’ shooting prowess. He played all 24 minutes in the second half. He filled the lane for three first-quarter layups, he had six rebounds, was active defensively. He committed a tough foul on Ish Smith when the Suns were making a push to get back in the game, saving a possession when Smith appeared to have a breakaway layup off a steal and Barnes sent him to the foul line wrapping him up in the air a couple of feet from the hoop. Smith missed both free throws and the Clippers extended their lead from four to 10 over the ensuing two minutes.

“Matt played a helluva game offensively and defensively,” DeAndre Jordan said. “He guarded bigs, he guarded smalls, he guarded everybody. He definitely was the MVP tonight. Without him making those big shots I don’t know if we this game tonight.”

Barnes, who was subject of trade rumors in the days leading up to the trade deadline, said his play lately has been a direct result of being free of mind.

“I was a little lost before the trade deadline, frustrated,” he said. “But like I’ve said, while I’m here I’m going to have fun and try to help the team in any way that I can.”

But Clippers head coach Doc Rivers thinks it may have more to do with Barnes finally getting consistent court time and a full grasp of what the coaching staff is asking of him. Barnes missed all but one game in training camp due to a calf injury, sat out a month with a torn retina and has injured his thigh and sprained both ankles. He was inserted into the starting lineup on Jan. 20 in Detroit, and has been a fixture there since.

“He missed camp and then the beginning of the year,” Rivers said. “So, he was learning on the fly like [Danny] Granger will have to and even [Glen Davis].

“I’ve always thought it takes veteran guys a little longer because they have their own ways of doing things. They have to break their habits. It’s not like they’re trying not to. At times Matt will make a defensive mistake and point and knew it right away. So, you just have to be patient with him.”

That patience paid off on Tuesday when Barnes’ shooting opened things up for the rest of the offense, helping the Clippers score 60 second-half points after being held to 44 in the opening 24 minutes.

“They couldn’t really sag anymore,” Barnes said of the Suns. “They had to play Blake one-on-one. They couldn’t really trap Chris on the pick-and-roll so he got those elbow jumpers. So, I think us being able to knock down shots opened it up for our stars.”

“[Barnes meant] everything,” Paul said. “We came out in that third quarter and we had talked about trying to jump on them, but seeing the ball go through the hoop really sparked us. Even when they made a couple of shots, Matt was just matching them. Eventually I sort of think it broke their spirit.”