PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference semifinals; tied 2-2.
The Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers have found ways to win while playing to the other’s strengths through the first four games of their playoff series. It remains to be seen what style each club will employ when the teams meet at the U.S. Airways Center for a pivotal Game 5.
The Clippers, whom many observers thought would have to slow the Suns’ up-tempo offense to have any chance of advancing to the conference finals, carry the momentum into Tuesday’s contest following their series-tying 114-107 victory Sunday.
Instead of relying on tight defense in the fourth quarter, it was clutch scoring by Elton Brand and Sam Cassell that saved the Clippers from heading back to Phoenix facing elimination. Brand’s basket with 55 seconds left stopped a 12-0 Suns run and restored a 3-point lead for Los Angeles, and following a miss on a potential tying shot by Tim Thomas, Cassell made a contested 3-pointer with 27 seconds left to seal the victory.
“Sam Cassell hit the big shots down the stretch,” Suns coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He had a great game, and he hit the big shot right in front of our bench. That’s ridiculous.”
The Clippers, though, needed that shot after their defense failed them and the team squandered nearly all of a 13-point lead in the final 5:54.
“Last year, we would have lost at the end,” said Brand, who had 30 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. “Sam brings swagger, Sam brought swagger tonight. We need to have it every game.”
The shot brought redemption for Cassell, who played only 35 seconds in the fourth quarter of a 94-91 loss in Game 3 and did not enter the game in the final period Sunday until 7:19 remained.
“I’m going to be a head coach in this league some day. Coaching is a feel,” said Cassell, who had 28 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. “I don’t blame Coach Dunleavy. I knew in Game 4 I was going to be in the fourth quarter a lot. I didn’t even worry about Game 3.”
Playing without injured starting center Chris Kaman, the Clippers used a seven-man rotation, six of which scored in double figures.
The 7-foot Kaman sat out the game with a sore right shoulder, but the Clippers still outrebounded the Suns 55-37—a similar discrepancy to Game 2, when Los Angeles won the rebounding battle 57-26 in a 122-97 victory.
The Suns lost for the first time in six playoff games when scoring more than 100 points. Phoenix, though, which played with surprising tenacity on defense to win Game 3, is optimistic about its chances.
“It’s not as bleak as it seems—we’re 2-2,” D’Antoni said. “You play all year to defend your home court. If we’re good enough, we’ll do it and advance to the next round. If not, hats off to them.”
For the Suns to advance, they may need to find a way to get Steve Nash going. The reigning two-time NBA MVP hit a clutch jumper with 3.6 seconds left to seal a 94-91 victory Friday, but was just 3-of-9 for 12 points in that game and had eight points on 3-for-11 shooting Sunday, although he did have 11 assists.
The Clippers have limited Nash’s scoring with constant double-teaming. Nash has averaged only 11.3 points in the last three games.
“The way they’re playing me, I’m not going to have a prolific scoring series,” he said. “I’ve got to play a little better—I’m not playing very well the last couple of games.”
Raja Bell picked up the scoring slack for Nash on Sunday with a career-high 33 points, making seven 3-pointers. Free of the burden of having to defend a superstar, which he had to do with Kobe Bryant in the first round, Bell has averaged 22.3 points in this series on 54.2 percent (32-for-59) shooting, including 53.1 percent (17-for-32) from 3-point range.
The series returns to Staples Center for Game 6 on Thursday.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Clippers - Brand, 22.9 ppg and 9.7 rpg; Cassell, 5.6 apg. Suns - Nash, 20.0 ppg and 9.8 apg; Marion, 10.5 rpg.