The last thriller was a big hit for the Suns, and they had a strong opening this time with a 94-91 victory Friday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals before a sellout crowd at Staples Center.
Phoenix showed significant improvement in rebounding and containing Elton Brand and Sam Cassell — must-do items on D'Antoni's checklist — in winning for the first time this postseason when scoring fewer than 100 points.
And the Suns, taking a 2-1 series lead, again maintained their cool in a tense postseason situation at Staples.
In their last visit here, Phoenix defeated the Lakers in overtime of Game 6 en route to overcoming a 3-1 deficit in winning that best-of-seven series.
With Cassell on the bench for much of the fourth quarter Friday, the Suns closed well.
Point guard Steve Nash made a 14-foot fadeaway jumper with 3.6 seconds remaining to give the Suns a three-point cushion after the Clippers scored five unanswered points to pull within one, and Vladimir Radmanovic missed a three-pointer at the buzzer that would have tied the score.
"It's a chess match. They made some great adjustments and won," said Brand, who scored 40 and 27 points, respectively, in the first two games. "We had some mismatches, and we didn't match up well.
"They went much bigger with Shawn Marion guarding Sam Cassell. Going big helped them on the boards. They went big but were still able to spread the floor with their shooters."
Marion struggled against Brand in Games 1 and 2, so D'Antoni shook up the lineup, sending James Jones to the bench and starting Tim Thomas, who guarded Brand with a lot of help double- and triple-team help.
The 6-foot-7 Marion shifted to the 6-3 Cassell, and the Suns got the best of that matchup.
Marion had a 32-point, 19-rebound performance, and Thomas had 19 points and 14 rebounds to help the Suns finish within one rebound (47-46) of the Clippers, who had a 31-rebound advantage in Game 2.
They swarmed around Brand, who scored 20 points but missed 10 of 17 shots, and overcame the hot three-point shooting of Radmanovic, who made four three-pointers in a row in one stretch of the fourth and scored 18 points off the bench. Reserve Corey Maggette led the Clippers with 14 rebounds.
Cassell missed eight of 10 shots and scored six points. He had 28 points in Game 1 and 23 points in Game 2.
"He really didn't bother me, I just didn't knock down open looks," Cassell said of Marion. "I just hope I have those same looks in Game 4."
Cassell, considered among the best clutch shooters in the NBA, had few opportunities in the fourth quarter.
With Shaun Livingston running the team and Radmanovic hot from three-point range, the Clippers overcame an 11-point deficit early in the quarter. Coach Mike Dunleavy left Cassell on the bench until 1:17 remained in the game. Seconds after he returned, Cassell missed a three-pointer that would have tied the score at 89-89.
Trailing, 86-85, with 2:35 left to play, the Suns used a 7-0 run to take a 92-86 lead with less than a minute remaining.
The Clippers got to within a point, 92-91, with 28.4 seconds left on Brand's three-point play and two free throws by Quinton Ross, but Nash connected on his clutch jump shot with Maggette guarding him.
As for Cassell, he supported Dunleavy's decision.
"Shaun was playing well, so I'm not surprised," he said. "The lineup that was in was doing well. We came back, so I have no complaints."