PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference semifinals; Game 1.
After completing an amazing comeback, the Phoenix Suns will match up with another opponent from Los Angeles—albeit an unlikely one—in the conference semifinals.
The Suns host the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 at U.S. Airways Center, two days after rallying from a 3-1 deficit to stun the Lakers in their best-of-seven first-round series.
The semifinals are foreign territory to the Clippers. Los Angeles beat Denver 4-1 in the first round, its first playoff series victory since 1976. This is only the fourth playoff appearance in the past 30 years for the Clippers.
Phoenix advanced to the conference finals last season, but looked like it was on the verge of elimination in the first round this season after the Lakers took a two-game lead following a last-second shot by Kobe Bryant in Game 4.
But the Suns went back to their fast-paced offensive ways to win the next three games, including a 121-90 rout in Game 7 on Saturday.
Of the seven previous teams to rebound from a 3-1 deficit, five went on to win the NBA title.
“You always have doubts popping in and out of your mind. I knew it was possible,” Phoenix point guard Steve Nash said of the comeback. “I think it’s like any situation, you wouldn’t feel good about being 3-1. But having lost games the way we lost them and then playing so well in the last three games, made me feel good about our chances.”
Nash, who was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for the second straight season on Sunday, sprained his right ankle in the first half but said he should be fine to play on Monday.
If Nash can’t go, Phoenix can rely on backup Leandro Barbosa, who scored 26 points on 10-for-12 shooting in the Game 7 victory over the Lakers.
Boris Diaw, the NBA’s most improved player, had 21 points and nine assists and Shawn Marion had 13 points and 10 rebounds for the Suns, who advanced past the first round for only the third time in their last nine playoff appearances.
“Tonight, Boris and Leandro were our best players,” Nash said. “The two guys that people said were disappointing in the beginning of the series, I think they are accustomed to the series now and they lost their virginity, so to speak, in the seventh game.”
The Clippers can’t be regarded lightly despite being in the conference semifinals for the first time in 30 years. Despite being seeded sixth, Los Angeles had homecourt advantage over Denver and easily took care of the Nuggets in five games, holding them to 87.4 points per contest, 13 below their season average.
“It’s still kind of surreal. I might not appreciate it until we start the second round,” said Clippers forward Elton Brand, who played in 544 regular season games before making his playoff debut April 22.
The Clippers, who haven’t played since last Monday, won a series for the first time since moving to California in 1978 but feel they can advance even further.
“I’m not going to jump ahead of myself,” Los Angeles coach Mike Dunleavy said. “I’ve felt like this team can achieve more. I think all the way. I know it’s not in everybody’s eyes a realistic thing to do. We’d have to play very well. I think we have the tools to do it.”
This is the first playoff appearance for the Clippers since 1997. The Buffalo Braves beat Philadelphia 2-1 in the 1976 first round for the franchise’s only other series victory. That team lost 4-2 to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Suns and Clippers split their four regular season meetings. They’ve never met in the playoffs.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Clippers - Brand, 17.8 ppg and 10.0 rpg; Shaun Livingston, 6.0 apg. Suns - Nash, 22.1 ppg and 9.6 apg; Marion, 9.4 rpg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: 2-2. Each team won a game at home and on the road. Nash averaged 17.5 points and 11.5 assists, including 18 assists in a 112-102 victory on Jan. 18. Brand averaged 24.5 points and 10.8 rebounds, with double-doubles in both Los Angeles wins.