Clippers Get Defensive About Suns

Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — Forty points from their No. 1 option on offense, 123 points overall and 59.3% shooting from the field.

That's big stuff, but it was only part of what the Clippers needed against the high-scoring Phoenix Suns in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Monday.

Despite getting a Clipper playoff-record 40 points from Elton Brand, the Clippers lost, 130-123. With a stronger performance on defense, the Clippers might be leading in the best-of-seven series, players said, and containing the Suns remains their top priority in Game 2 tonight at US Airways Center.

And again, it probably won't be easy.

Since losing three games to the Lakers in the first round, the Suns are rolling again behind point guard Steve Nash, whose penetration and passing were among the problems on defense for the Clippers.

In NBA history, teams that take 2-0 leads have won 94.8% of postseason series. So it's time to make a stand, the Clippers said, or face a rough road ahead.

"We didn't do the job defensively," Coach Mike Dunleavy said. "We've got to adjust a few things, and we've got to be better at the other things that we're trying to do that we didn't get done.

"We're not going to stop them from scoring. We've just got to get the shots that we want them to take, and understand we're willing to live by it."

In Game 1, the Suns had six players in double figures, shot 54.7% from the field and made 12 three-pointers in 27 attempts — 44.4%.

"There were a lot of things on defense that we can improve on and will improve on," Brand said. "We have to run our defensive sets, and we have to help out more on the perimeter.

"There are certain situations that Coach put us in, and we didn't do it on the court. We practiced it, so we have to bring it to the game."

Nash — who won his second consecutive most valuable player award Sunday — had 31 points and 12 assists. The Clippers struggled to stop his penetration, which often led to short jump shots and layups for Nash and others.

The Suns improved to 5-0 in the playoffs when scoring at least 100 points. They're averaging 122.8 points in a four-game winning streak.

"The biggest thing we have to figure out … is to keep them from getting layups," Dunleavy said. "That was the biggest thing that we did poorly: offensive penetration for layups."

Of course, that's one of the things Nash does best.

Better focus and on-court communication could help tonight, players said, but stopping Nash is the key.

"His speed is so deceptive," said swingman Quinton Ross, assigned to guard Nash. "You want to try to keep him in front of you, you want to try to contest his shot, but it's hard.

"As far as passing the ball goes, he's always getting guys the ball in good situations. You just have to pick your poison with him. He's such a great player."

Brand joined an elite group Monday. He surpassed Danny Manning's Clipper record of 33 points set in the first round of the 1992 playoffs against the Utah Jazz. Bob McAdoo scored 50 points for the Buffalo Braves — they later became the Clippers — in the 1975 playoffs.

"We're going to try to get better, and get a little bit more aggressive on him at different points, but that's him," Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni said of Brand. "That guy is that good. That was an awesome display of talent."

The Suns tried multiple double- and triple-team schemes against Brand, but it didn't seem to matter.

"True," Brand said. "It didn't seem to matter they were keying on me, but they might try some different [things]. Maybe the refs will jump in."

Brand's 18-for-22 performance helped the Clippers shoot their highest percentage of the season.

Moreover, the Clippers' 59.3% mark was the highest in the playoffs for a losing team since the Milwaukee Bucks shot 63.2% in a 126-123 loss to the Detroit Pistons in 1976.

"Offense wasn't our problem," said point guard Sam Cassell, who scored 28 points. "We just can't let these guys make that many shots."

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