LOS ANGELES -- Six or seven minutes after the horn, the Clippers' faithful lingered in the Staples Center, looking out on the floor, soaking up the moment -- some dancing, some shouting, some banging the ThunderStix one more time just to hear the happy echo.
Anticipating a magical seventh
The Clippers had never had a game like this, with their backs against the wall and all the chips on the table, and when it came upon them, they were ready. That's right, that's the new Clippers reality: They come up big when it counts, taking the Western Conference semifinal Game 6, 118-106. They did it in Tuesday night's Game 5 in Phoenix -- when they rallied from being down 19 in the third before falling in OT -- and they did it Thursday, taking care of business on their home floor and forcing this series to the limit.
They had it all working. The Staples crowd, 19,985 strong, was rocking from the tip. The horse, Elton Brand, was doing his equine thing to the tune of 30 points, 12 boards and five blocks. The stopper, Quinton Ross, was a Nash killer on one end and an opportunistic shooter on the other, racking up a surprising 18 points. The enigma, Corey Maggette, came to play, driving his way through traffic for 25 (on 7-of-8 shooting), five and four. Even Chris Kaman (15 points) was effective. The Suns tried to match them -- Phoenix got another stellar night from Shawn Marion (34 points, 9 rebounds) and a jolt off the bench from Leandro Barbosa -- but they were in over their heads from the get-go, never able to match the Clippers' energy.
And so we go to Game 7, like it ought to be, like we were hoping it would be after we saw the classic these two teams cooked up in Game 5.
And so, for the seventh game, we pose Seven Questions:
Nash came out Thursday night with a burst, and Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said afterward he thought there was "some pop in him" in the late stages of the game, but for much of the night the league MVP looked like he was running through the shallow end of a swimming pool, barely able to lift his knees and move ahead. It's reasonable, the Suns have played 13 games in 25 days. "I felt fine," Nash said after the game. "But it just didn't seem like we had a lot of pop tonight."
Ditto the Clips' PG, who followed his yeoman Game 5 effort with a pedestrian 15 points in this one. "He's 58 years old," Los Angeles coach Mike Dunleavy joked afterward. "His legs are tired." If either guy gets his mojo back come Monday night, the advantage goes to his club. If they both find the spring in their steps, the advantage goes to those of us watching.
2. Can the Clippers handle the pressure?
Just last week the Suns dispatched a Los Angeles team in a seventh game, and they did it handily. They have a playoff-savvy club, from point guard to shooting guard to, well, whatever it is you call the Matrix. The Clippers, meanwhile, will be on foreign soil and in alien territory. (Game 7? Chance to go to the conference finals? That's some crazy new stuff for the Clips, my friends.) "Everything's new for me," Brand said afterward. "I'm going to treat it like we've treated every other game in the playoffs so far."
But the thing is, Game 7s are a different beast. And the crowd in Phoenix is one of the loudest in the league. And the Suns, with three days rest and the adrenaline of playing for the home fans, are a high-octane monster.
The Clips showed in Game 5 they have it in them to absorb the Suns' best and come back swinging. And they showed in Game 6 that they can attack when their opponent is vulnerable. "We feel we can play with anybody," Dunleavy said. "We can play fast, we can play slow. This team was built for the playoffs." If they can believe that, and draw on that confidence in Game 7, we could see something special.
3. Can the Suns handle Brand?
When the Clippers find their stalwart anywhere near the blocks, good things happen. Tim Thomas can't handle him. Boris Diaw has no shot. When they double, Brand finds his guys on the perimeter. "I have full faith in them," he said Thursday. "I know they're there, waiting to knock down shots." And when they don't double, he takes his time, finds his spots and launches his feathery jumper. Steve Nash is the MVP of the season, but Brand owns this series right now. "He's been a terrific shot-maker, and he's probably led them in assists," Nash said. "He's been so efficient. He puts a lot of pressure on the defense. He's just a very valuable player."
The defense, yes, and the Suns' coaching staff, too; they need to find some combination, some rhythm-jamming, physicality and scheming to get him out of his comfort zone. And with his willingness to pass out of the double (he had three assists Thursday night and is averaging 5.2 in the series), they better hope the Clippers' shooters aren't hitting the way they did in Game 6 (the team shot 61.5 percent from the floor).
4. Will the Clippers go "small"?
Dunleavy started Chris Kaman again Thursday night and began the second half with him, as well, but the Clippers seem to present the most difficulty for Phoenix when they go with either Maggette or Livingston in the mix instead of the big man. Not to discount the magic of the flowing mane, of course, but when the Clippers can move the ball and their feet quickly on offense and can exploit gaps in the Suns' D with slashing and dishing, they are at their best. And when they can count on quick, shuffling, sacrificing defenders at every spot on the floor, jamming the Suns in transition, they match up with Phoenix most effectively.
Will Dunleavy break his mold and show the Suns the little Clips from the get-go? It could be the difference between a ticket to the conference finals and a ticket home.
5. Will the real Boris Diaw please stand up?
On a night when the Suns needed major contributions from their role players, Barbosa (25 points, 11 assists) was ginormous. Diaw, on the other hand, came up short. He posted 14 points and seven assists in Game 6, but much of that work came after the game had gotten away from the Suns. He appeared out of sync all night, just missing guys who were open, short-arming shots he normally hits and hesitating to drive the lane and find his spots to score and dish.
At his best, Diaw is Matrix 2.0, an impossible to classify player with handle, vision and a nose for the ball. At his best, he is the perfect complement to Nash and Marion. If he is at his best in Game 7, all the Brands and Cassells in the world might not be enough to stop the Suns. If he wanders lost in the desert as he did in Game 6, the Clips will give Marion his points and clamp down on Nash and challenge the MVP to find more fuel in the tank.
6. Will Quinton Ross be able to do it again?
We knew the man could D-up. We knew he was going to lay a body on Nash early and often. We had no idea he'd be good for 18 game-changing points in the process. Ross was the most valuable Clipper in Game 6, and it wasn't even close. On defense, he was trained on Nash like a drug-sniffing dog tracking smuggled hash, and on offense, he was passing up open jumpers just to back the tired Nash down and bump him a bit before rising up for a turnaround jump shot. "We felt like we had a good post matchup against Steve," Dunleavy said, underselling the abuse the young, wiry Ross was doling out on the Suns' heart and soul.
When Barbosa came off the Phoenix bench, he gave Ross fits, at one point scoring 12 straight Suns points; but when D'Antoni put the ball in Nash's hands, Ross was in command. So how will it play in Game 7? Will D'Antoni go with Nash and Barbosa on the floor together more often? Will the Suns try to knock him silly with Tim Thomas picks up high? And maybe most importantly, will Ross take this game for what it was, his coming-out party, and enter the clincher with the swagger he'll need to withstand the Suns approach to him?
7. How will the basketball gods be able to pick a winner?
If it's the Suns, we get Nash and D'Antoni, two of the league's most likeable and entertaining guys, in the West finals.
If it's the Clippers, we get nothing less than a revolution; we get a chance to see how the world works when it spins the opposite direction, we get rain falling up and snowfall in the nether regions.
Give the Suns the edge for the home court. Give the Clips the edge for hunger.
Brand says Los Angeles just might have some momentum after the way it handled Game 6.
Nash says the rest for both teams is an equalizer: "I think it's just who rises to the occasion, who does the best, who has the most left in the tank," he said. "I hope they play their best and I hope we play our best."
That's what we're all hoping. And if it all goes that way, I give the edge to the Suns on their own floor. But then again, I'm not one of the basketball gods.
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Chris Carlson/AP Photo
Suns guard Steve Nash argues a call during his team's Game 6 loss to the Clippers. Nash had 17 points and 11 rebounds.
The NBA Tournament is twice as good as the NCAA Tournament.
How do we know?
In 65 playoff games entering Thursday night, the NBA had already witnessed 13 games decided by two points or less.
In 64 games in the 2006 Big Dance, only six were decided by that small a margin.
And to further support the idea that these are the most drama-filled playoffs in NBA history, those 13 games decided by two points or less are one shy of the league-record 14 seen in 1995 . . . with two full rounds to go.
The eight overtime games to date are the most ever in one NBA postseason, topping the previous record of seven in 1993 and 1994.
-- Marc Stein
Momentum is the key word in any playoff series and you would have thought the Mavs would be in good shape returning to Dallas up 3-2. But everything has changed with the suspension of Jason Terry. The Mavs will be forced to start Jerry Stackhouse and will lose speed, scoring and depth in Terry's absence. In a series that has been so close (four of the five games have been decided by an average of 2.25 points), losing Terry could prove devastating. He has averaged almost 40 minutes and 18.2 points per game. Will the Mavs be mentally tough enough to deal with Terry's suspension or will they let it be a distraction? We will know shortly.
As talented as this team is they allowed the Spurs to dictate the pace of Game 5 and keep the game in the 90s. The Mavs need Devin Harris, Josh Howard, Stackhouse and maybe Marquis Daniels to pick up their games with the absence of Terry. They need to have strong performances in Game 6, quicken the pace of the game and drive the ball to the rim for scores and fouls. The Mavs allowed the Spurs to beat them at the foul line in Game 5 (31-19). They must attack the basket and punish the Spurs for easy scores.
Each team turned the ball over only 12 times in Game 5. Each team will need to take care of the ball and have a low-turnover game. There can be no wasted possessions in a critical game. This could be one of the deciding statistics in Game 6.
The pressure will be on Dallas to perform well and build an early lead in Game 6. If the game is close into the second half or if the Mavs falter early, the pressure will mount, and the thought of going back to San Antonio will creep into their minds.
The Clips forced a Game 7 with the Suns. The forecast calls for an increased chance of Billy Crystal sightings.
Clippers Force Game 7
Chris Carlson/AP Photo
Clippers forward Quinton Ross gets a hand from fans after hitting a shot at the second-quarter buzzer of L.A.'s Game 6 victory.
Quote of the Day
Quote of the Day, Part 2
-- Andrew Ayres
One big difference between Game 5 and Game 6 for the Clippers was that they figured out how to make the best use of Corey Maggette's considerable scoring skills. When L.A. inserted Maggette into the starting lineup in Game 5, it spent much of the first half trying to get post-up opportunities for him against Steve Nash. However, that only took L.A. out of its offense and helped create the 19-point deficit they had to crawl back from.
In Game 6, it was a different story. L.A. still found time to attack Nash in the post with Quinton Ross, but Ross -- though much less of a scorer -- is actually a more instinctive post player than Maggette. He showed it, too, dropping in a season-high 18 points.
Meanwhile, L.A. put Maggette in position to succeed by keeping him out of the blocks. The Clippers' "other" forward from Duke does two things exceptionally well -- shoot stand-still jumpers and drive hard to the hoop with his right hand to draw fouls.
On Wednesday, the Clippers repeatedly got the ball to him in spots where he could do one of those two things, mostly as a result of double-teams against Elton Brand on the low post. The result? Maggette torched the Suns for 25 points in 27 minutes, missing only one shot in the process.
The question now is how the Clippers use Maggette in Game 7. He was L.A.'s forgotten man in the regular season, missing 50 games due to an assortment of injuries, yet when he played he was the team's second-leading scorer. Additionally, he's a matchup terror for Phoenix's frontcourt players, as Tim Thomas and Boris Diaw proved they couldn't stay with Maggette on the perimeter when he lines up as the Clips' power forward.
On the other hand, playing Maggette requires taking somebody off the floor. Ross is needed for his defense on Nash, especially if he's going to throw in double-digit scoring, so Maggette probably has to be content to be an X factor off the bench. The most likely scenario is that Maggette gets the call late in the first or early in the second quarter, and if things go well he stays in the game at power forward while Chris Kaman gets an extended break and Vladimir Radmanovic doesn't shed his warm-ups.
So when Maggette enters Monday's Game 7, watch closely. L.A. already has as much offense as Phoenix can handle with players like Elton Brand, Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley. If in addition to that, Maggette gets the same opportunities he did in Game 6, it should end up being a long night for Phoenix.
-- John Hollinger
Your votes in pertinent playoff poll questions:
For the Spurs, this series is...
38.6% the end of the mini-dynasty.
For the Mavericks, this series is...
27.8% the prelude to a 2006 championship.
Total Votes: 24,867
One of the dramatic twists used to great, gory effect in the "Rocky" films is having Mssr. Balboa in the penultimate round, too tired to put his gloves up, and thereby getting his melon pureed into a cranial smoothie.
The Suns know the feeling.
They're headed home now for three blessed days of rest before Game 7, the series tied 3-3 after losing 118-106 Thursday night at the Staples Center.
Elton Brand got his double-double bu-bumping Tim Thomas all over the paint. Whatever Steve Nash had left in his legs was siphoned off by Quinton Ross backing him down for 18 points. Chris Kaman, playing essentially with his off hand thanks to a severely strained right shoulder, got his double-double repeatedly putting Boris Diaw under the rim. Even Cuttino Mobley got in on the act, picking up six assists after drawing double teams in the post.
Corey Maggette then filled the bird-of-prey role, swooping over and through the carnage with threes and slashing layups for 25 points off the bench.
The Suns hung in with flurries of 3s, but that tells you just how out of it they were. They outscored L.A. 39-6 from beyond the arc and never got closer than seven in the second half.
"We just couldn't stop them," said coach Mike D'Antoni, who was more demure than his usual animated ref-chewing self, as well. "A lot of emotional stuff went down in the playoffs and now we'll have three days to recharge . . . A game in Phoenix with three days' rest. I don't think we could ask for anything more."
Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy, assuming the Clubber Lang role impressively, said he wouldn't have it any other way. "I want everybody to have everything they need," he said. "We felt like we played really well in Phoenix and let one get away. But we knew were coming home."
Seems as if everybody has what they want. One more page to write.
"If you don't have cable television," Sam Cassell said, "you better get it right away."
-- Ric Bucher at the Staples Center