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Beating L.A. Is the Sun Way
PHOENIX — Succeeding at half of a game plan won't cut it against the Phoenix Suns, who keep doing big things in the postseason against Los Angeles' teams.
The Suns have required only small openings to ruin the best-laid plans of Staples Center tenants, and the Clippers left the door ajar late Monday night in a 130-123 loss in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals at US Airways Center.
The Clippers accomplished their top goal on offense, getting the ball inside to power forward Elton Brand, who scored 40 points to set a Clipper playoff record.
But they finished poorly in their other emphasis: Defense.
Point guard Steve Nash led the Suns back from a 3-1 deficit in their first-round victory over the Lakers, and he again displayed MVP form Monday.
Nash took charge in the fourth quarter, positioning teammates to deliver body blows to the Clippers.
Trailing, 99-97, the Suns went on a 15-4 run. Nash's jump shot gave Phoenix a 112-103 lead with 5:35 left in the game.
That was all the Suns needed to push the Clippers into a corner, and they failed to swing out of the jam.
The Suns took the lead in the best-of-seven series, and the Clippers said they have work to do on the second part of their approach.
"They made a lot of threes
just a lot of shots on us tonight," said point guard Sam Cassell, who scored 28 points. "You just can't let them make that many shots, because they're tough to beat when that happens."
The Suns had six players in double figures, shot 54.7% from the field and had 12 three-pointers in 27 attempts (44.4%). Nash, who won his second consecutive most-valuable-player award Sunday, had 31 points and 12 assists. Forward Shawn Marion had 20 points and 15 rebounds, guard Raja Bell scored 22 and center Boris Diaw 19.
Nash spread the wealth, and the Clippers, who led, 78-70, in the third quarter, were often defenseless.
"We had an eight-point lead in the third, we were feeling good, and they just got rolling," swingman Quinton Ross said. "We have to find a way to cut out those types of opportunities when they get running.
"We did what we wanted to with E.B., we milked him and he had a great game, but we just kind of wasted it."
By the end of the third quarter, Brand held Clipper records for points in a postseason game at 34 and field goals at 15. He missed only three of his first 18 attempts.
Danny Manning scored 33 points in the first round of the 1992 playoffs against the Utah Jazz. Manning and Ron Harper shared the previous record of 12 field goals.
"I thought he was trying to get the MVP at halftime," Nash said of Brand.
The Suns designed their schemes to contain Brand.
They tried playing in front of him to deny passes to the low post. They tried getting physical with him and double-teamed him throughout the game.
None of that seemed to bother Brand, who was 18 for 22 from the field. His performance played the biggest part in the Clippers' shooting 59.3% for the game.
"Tonight was a tough night," Brand said. "Personally, I had a great game
[but] we didn't close this one out."
Coach Mike Dunleavy acknowledged he might have contributed to the poor finish.
With 7:15 remaining and the Clippers trailing, 103-101, Dunleavy replaced Brand with center Chris Kaman. Dunleavy wanted to give Brand a break for the final push, but the Clippers struggled with Brand on the bench.
Brand returned with 5:34 left and the Clippers trailing, 112-103.
"It's one of those things where he's going great," Dunleavy said. "You sit there and say, 'Can I give him a minute, give him a blow here?' I guess the answer is no at that point and time."
So after a week off, the Clippers now face their biggest challenge of the playoffs against the resilient Suns.
"Game 2 is going to be crucial for us," Cassell said. "But this team has responded all year."