Suns-Clippers Preview

The Associated Press

The presence of Chris Paul made the talented Eric Bledsoe expendable in the Clippers' backcourt, though a deal to ship him out of Los Angeles wasn't without its obstacles.

The Phoenix Suns are certainly glad it didn't fall apart.

The Suns have been the NBA's biggest surprise thus far largely thanks to Bledsoe, who returns to Staples Center to face his former team for the first time Monday night in a showdown between the Pacific Division's top two teams.

Bledsoe went to the Clippers in a 2010 draft-day trade after being taken by Oklahoma City, and he showed flashes of stardom as an occasional starter as a rookie and the last two seasons as Paul's backup.

But when Paul agreed to a five-year, $107 million extension and the team looking for shooters after Doc Rivers was brought aboard, Los Angeles (21-11) dealt Bledsoe to Phoenix in a three-team deal while landing J.J. Redick and former Sun Jared Dudley.

The trade almost didn't go through, as it was reported that Clippers owner Donald Sterling, long a fan of Bledsoe, nearly vetoed the deal. But Sterling changed his mind, the trade went through and the Suns (18-11) have turned into a surprise contender.

Phoenix has won nine of 11 after Saturday's 115-101 victory over Philadelphia, and Bledsoe is leading the way for a Suns team that leads the league with 19.1 fast-break points per game. He's averaging 18.4 points, 5.9 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals - one of just four players in the league to hit those marks.

Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Paul are the others.

"Man, I'm excited," Paul said of facing his former teammate. "I text Bled all the time, even now during the season when I'm watching him play on League Pass. ... It's gonna be fun. Bled is unbelievable right now. He's better now than he was last year, playing with a lot of confidence, so we're gonna compete."

Paul is playing at an incredible high level of late. After totaling 60 points, 27 assists and eight steals in back-to-back losses at Golden State and Portland, he finished an assist shy of a triple-double and had five steals in Saturday's 98-90 win over Utah.

All he wanted to talk about after the victory, though, was Blake Griffin. The Clippers' power forward had 40 points and 10 rebounds against the Jazz and has averaged 30.2 points on 55.0 percent shooting in his last five games.

''I looked at the stat sheet after the game and I said, 'Wow, he had 40.' I think his confidence right now is pretty high, and rightfully so,'' Paul said. ''It's great to see how he's dominated games, whether he's taking jump shots, posting up or going to the free throw line. It's fun to watch. I wouldn't know how to guard him.''

Griffin was held to a total of 21 points and 13 boards in the Clippers' last two games against the Suns last season, including a 93-88 loss in Phoenix on Jan. 24 that Paul missed with a bruised knee.

Goran Dragic took advantage of Paul's absence, going for a game-high 24 points and eight assists, and along with Bledsoe this season, has been an instrumental part of Phoenix's success. The Suns are 7-2 when Dragic, who's averaging 18.1 points, scores 20 or more.

Like Paul, Dragic wanted to talk about one of his big men after Saturday's win. Miles Plumlee had a career-high 22 points and 13 rebounds two games after going for 17 and 20 in a victory over the Lakers.

"He's a pretty skilled big guy. He protects our rim, and he's a great rebounder," Dragic said. "Without him, we're struggling. He's a huge part of this team. If he plays like this every game, it will be tough to beat us."

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