Brand may finally have groove back

Times Staff Writer

It might not be fair to say the Clippers’ success or failure this season rests on Elton Brand’s shoulders, but such is life when you’re a franchise player.

No one needs to tell Brand how things work in the star-driven NBA, and the Clippers’ top man delivered Tuesday night in a 101-97 victory over the Miami Heat in front of a sellout crowd of 19,060 at Staples Center.

In an outing reminiscent of his impressive start-to-finish performance last season, Brand scored 33 points (on 13-for-18 shooting), grabbed 17 rebounds and made many clutch plays to help the Clippers hold off the defending NBA champion.

Brand matched his highest point total of the season and scored at least 30 points in consecutive games for the first time. He had 31 points while leading the way in Sunday’s blowout victory over the Orlando Magic, and his encore was even better against Florida’s other team.

“It was one of those nights when Elton Brand was incredible,” Miami Coach Pat Riley said. “He was just so efficient as a player. He did us in.”

The Clippers (9-8) followed their leader to two victories that helped to bolster their confidence before leaving Thursday for a two-game, three-day trip against the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies.

Although the Clippers are winless on the road (0-6), they’re starting to feel good again about things because No. 42 suddenly looks a lot like he did last season.

“In the Orlando game, in a back-to-back game, he had major bounce in that game,” Coach Mike Dunleavy said of Brand. “Tonight as well, I thought he was excellent.”

The Clippers needed Brand to be in top form. Even playing without center Shaquille O’Neal, who is recovering from knee surgery, Miami (7-10) pushed the Clippers in their second sellout of the season.

Behind Brand and Cuttino Mobley, who scored 21 points, the Clippers went on a 25-6 run -- Brand scored 10 consecutive points in one stretch -- to take a 70-54 lead with 3:22 remaining in the third quarter. Once again, however, Dwyane Wade refused to let the Heat go quietly.

Last season’s most valuable player in the NBA Finals had five of his 33 points in a 7-0 spurt late in the fourth that helped Miami pull to within a point of the Clippers at 92-91 with 1:21 to play.

Shaun Livingston started the game and played well at times, but the Clippers appeared out of sync with the outcome undecided, so Dunleavy turned to Sam Cassell after a timeout.

When play resumed, Mobley missed a jumper and Brand grabbed the rebound. Cassell directed the offense, waiting until Brand got into his spot, and Brand made an 11-foot jumper to give the Clippers a three-point cushion.

Brand then grabbed another rebound on Wade’s missed layup attempt, was fouled and converted two free throws to put the Clippers ahead, 96-91, with 40.4 seconds remaining in the game. Cassell and Corey Maggette were perfect in four free-throw attempts in the final 16.8 seconds.

“Coach is doing a few things to get me the ball,” Brand said. “He’s saying, ‘Hey, we want to run these sets and play like this.’ He’s getting the big men the ball, and we’re sharing the ball. That’s all it takes to be a good team.”

The Clippers overcame 18 turnovers that led to 18 points for Miami. Of course, it helped that the Heat shot 40.7% from the field and only 12% (three of 25) from three-point range.

“We let Elton Brand do everything he wanted to do,” Miami guard Gary Payton said. “He did anything he wanted. We have to have a team effort with him.

“We knew what he was going to do and he broke our back. He hurt us and that’s just the way it goes. We let Elton Brand beat us.”