LOS ANGELES (AP)—There was much more on the line than just first place in the Pacific Division. For the Los Angeles Clippers, it was an opportunity to prove to the Phoenix Suns that they are for real.
For the Suns, it was a chance to extend their nine-game winning streak. But that didn’t happen, because Elton Brand wouldn’t let it. He scored 15 of his 27 points in the third quarter, grabbed 13 rebounds and had a season-high six assists Saturday night, leading Los Angeles to a 101-91 victory that snapped a tie for the division lead and improved the Clippers’ record to 14-5.
“It takes us up a notch—I mean, they won nine straight games,” Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said. “They’re an extremely talented team, but there’s no way that either one of us could come in here and say, `Yeah, we’re supposed to win.’ Their stats are better than ours, but we were at home.”
Brand also was 11-for-12 from the line, helping the Clippers improve to 9-1 at Staples Center—where they went 27-14 last season. Cuttino Mobley added 25 points and Sam Cassell scored six of his 24 points in the final minute to choke off a late Suns rally. Chris Kaman added 12 points and 10 rebounds.
“We knew they were white-hot and were winning a lot of ballgames, but we were confident coming in,” Brand said. “Even down four at the half, we were still confident. We knew that once we made our adjustments, we’d be OK in the second half.”
The Suns, who entered the game as the NBA’s highest-scoring team, went 1-for-13 from the field in the first 8:20 of the fourth quarter while the Clippers went on an 8-0 run that increased their seven-point lead to 91-78 with 3:58 to play. Cassell ignited the rally with a pair of 18-foot jumpers.
“It was a tough game for us, considering that it was our fourth game in five nights,” Phoenix’s Steve Nash said. “We scrapped, but we just struggled offensively and couldn’t make any shots. We missed a lot of shots that we can make, but they also played well.”
The Suns, who lost reserve guard Leandro Barbosa to a knee injury with 3:55 left and forward James Jones with a sprained right ankle late in the first half, got as close as 93-88 with a 10-2 spurt capped by Nash’s two free throws with 1:04 to play. But Cassell iced it with a short jumper and four free throws.
“We were draining so much energy on the defensive end trying to stop them, we couldn’t score,” Shawn Marion said. “We got in foul trouble early and guys were going down with injuries, so you can factor in a lot of stuff. But they stopped us.”
Marion scored 20 points for Phoenix and Kurt Thomas had 13 points and 17 rebounds. Nash added 16 points and 11 assists.
“We wanted to keep our winning streak going, but this was a good test for us right now,” Marion said. “They’re playing great ball, just like us. We’ve been watching them. With the addition of Cassell and Cat (Mobley), and Brand and Kaman playing well, they’re definitely a good team.”
After squandering a nine-point lead in the first half, the Clippers pulled ahead 75-65 with a 20-6 run capped by Cassell’s 14-footer with 4:10 left in the third quarter. Boris Diaw, starting in Amare Stoudemire’s spot, picked up his fifth foul with 6:56 left in the quarter and Brand converted both free throws before Mobley hit a 14-footer, a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws—all in a 48-second span.
The Suns led 57-53 at halftime after trailing by nine points in the final minute of the first quarter. Raja Bell, who went to the bench less than 2 1/2 minutes into the game after picking up his first two fouls 8 seconds apart, capped a 13-2 run with a layup that gave Phoenix a 54-47 lead with 2:44 left in the half.
The Clippers’ next two games are against Detroit and San Antonio, the teams that faced each other in last season’s NBA Finals. So the Clippers don’t have much time to enjoy their latest conquest.
“We’re not savoring it at all. We’re ready to move on to tomorrow’s game with Detroit,” Brand said. “Guys like Sam and Cuttino don’t get too high or too low, and I’m rolling with them.”
The Suns had winning streaks of nine and 11 games last season en route to a league-best 62-20 record, earning Mike D’Antoni coach of the year honors. He was an assistant in Portland under Dunleavy in 2000-01, two seasons after Dunleavy was named coach of the year with the Trail Blazers. … The Suns have played only six road games, the fewest in the league. This game began a stretch in which they will play nine of 12 away from home. Their 31-10 road record last season was a franchise record.