Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Game 7 - Suns 127, Clippers 107

A couple minutes into the second half of game 7 my brother called me. (A Clipper bandwagon jumper, he could not have picked Corey Maggette out of a lineup 5 weeks ago, though in his defense that has a lot to do with the interminably long NBA regular season and the fact that, as he puts it, "Those guys couldn't care less during the regular season." But he likes the playoffs.) The Suns of course started the second half making 7 of 8 shots, including 3 threes. So my brother asks me, "Are the Clippers going to guard anyone?"

Now, I'm not saying that the Clippers were at their defensive best last night. But when you have 5 shooters on the floor, and Steve Nash forcing switches and double teams, and then finding people, someone is going to be open from somewhere. And when EVERYONE is making EVERYTHING from EVERYWHERE, well... I'm just saying, it's going to be a long night. Take that stretch at the beginning of the second half when my phone rang. They went 7 for 8 - here are the 8 shots from the game log:

  • Shawn Marion makes 16-foot jumper (Steve Nash assists)
  • Steve Nash makes 26-foot three point jumper (Boris Diaw assists)
  • Shawn Marion makes 22-foot three point jumper (Steve Nash assists)
  • Boris Diaw misses 16-foot jumper
  • Boris Diaw makes driving layup
  • Raja Bell makes 15-foot two point shot
  • Boris Diaw makes 17-foot jumper (Steve Nash assists)
  • Shawn Marion makes 24-foot three point jumper (Tim Thomas assists)

Now, I ask you, what is the book on the Phoenix Suns? Make Shawn Marion a jump shooter. Make Boris Diaw a jump shooter. Run Raja Bell off the three point line and make him put the ball on the floor. (Note that there is no assist on Bell's make, which means he had to put the ball on the floor.) Of these 8 shots, 6 of them are what you are willing to give the Suns. Only Diaw's layup (which is of course set up my the fact that he's making his J's, not too mention that he's a very tough cover for Brand), and Nash's three (which he was 2-18 on before this game) are shots you're supposed to take away. And where as it would be nice to take away everything, this is the real world, and if the Suns play with energy, they can get these shots all day long. If they make them, you lose.

8 shots, 7 makes, 5 assists, 17 points - in about 4 minutes. (Amazingly, the Clippers didn't lose much ground in this stretch as they were scoring every time also, but more on that later.) Again, I'm not saying the Clippers defense was great. But people tend to look at a high shooting percentage and immediately jump to the conclusion that the defense is bad. As I've said before, sometimes a high shooting percentage means that the shooters are making shots. I don't care who was lined up against the Suns last night... the Pistons... the Larry Brown Pistons... the 1990 Pistons... the Looney Tunes with Michael Jordan from Space Jam... the space aliens from Space Jam... 3 Aliens and 2 Predators... nobody was stopping that team last night.

It's been said on more than one occasion that the Suns have no interest in defense, and would just as soon take the ball out of the basket and answer 2 points with 3 points. Well, welcome to game 7. At the end of the first quarter, the Suns had made 3 threes, and they led by 4. At halftime, 7 threes, led by 8. In the aforementioned first 4 minutes of the 3rd, both teams shot 7 for 8, Suns made 3 more threes and stretched the lead from 8 to 11. Imagine that. After 3 quarters, 12 threes, they led by 15.

For the game, the Clippers shot 52.6% and made 25 of 26 free throws. They only turned the ball over 11 times; only 5 times after the jitters of the first quarter. And they lost by 20.

I know they didn't dominate the glass they way they have, but remember two things about that. (1) When the Suns are making shots, they are energized and they get to a lot more balls than when they are missing. It's the ultimate feedback loop. And (2) when the Suns are making shots, there are no rebounds. They made 48-80.... that means there were only 32 rebounds available. Letting the Suns get 9 of those 32 misses was a problem, but it certainly wasn't the difference in this game.

The script for this series could not have been more clear.
  • Game 1, after an emotional Game 7 victory over the Lakers, the Suns open up at home still riding high, shoot 55%, score 130 points and win.
  • Games 2 through 6, the tough first round, the busy playoff schedule and the lack of depth catch up with Phoenix, and they are beatable in all 5 games. The Clippers look like the completely superior team in all 5 games, but only manage to win 3 of them, losing a completely winnable game 3 and a heartbreaking game 5.
  • Game 7, after 3 days off, playing at home, the Suns are once again riding high, shoot 60%, score 127 points and win.
For the Clippers to win this series, they had to take advantage of their relative youth, depth, and their fresh legs from having beaten Denver in 5. That meant winning 4 games during that tough stretch of games 2 through 6. You can't lose games you're supposed to win, and win a 7 game series. Not unless you're the vastly superior team (say, like the Suns versus the Lakers). I think the Clippers are better than the Suns. But not by much.

But as I've said before, short of winning a championship, this is the best possible ending for the Clippers' season. Sure, I'd have liked it to keep going, if only for the chance to be at Staples watching the Clippers in the conference finals. But to lose with the feeling that you were this close (OK, I know it's a blog, but imagine my fingers really close together without actually touching). That just may be the impetus Sterling needs to do the right thing, re-sign Cassel and Radmanovic, and see where this team goes next. Let's hope that's what happens.