If you look at the playoff bracket, it says the Phoenix Suns have advanced. But if you look at their Western Conference semifinal itinerary, you’d swear the Suns are stuck in a remake of “Groundhog Day.” Once again, Phoenix is playing Los Angeles. Once again, they’ll be in southern California for the weekend, again playing in Staples Center on Friday and Sunday.
Steve Nash, once again the league’s MVP, once again will be matching up against a point guard who used to be his teammate.
Same bus driver. Same crowded freeways. Same metal detectors. You have to wonder if the wake-up call at the team hotel will feature “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher.
But the dizzying similarities stop short right there. Having sent the Lakers golfing after a wild, seven-game series, now the Suns are matched up against Los Angeles’ best team, the Clippers, beginning tonight at US Airways Center. And while the Clippers don’t have a player with Kobe Bryant’s flash on their roster, these Clippers have something just as lethal in the eyes of their opponent: A deep, talented, hard-working team.
“They’re a totally different team than the Lakers with a whole new set of challenges,” Nash said. “They have some terrific offensive players and they are playing very confidently as a team. We need to stay in the rhythm we developed at the end of the last series and try to keep it going.”
While the Suns had one day to prepare, the Clippers have been off for a full week after destroying Denver in five games — the first playoff series since 1997 for a franchise that had won 13 playoff games in its previous 45 years. Led by big men Elton Brand and Chris Kaman and point guard Sam Cassell — who was the starter in Phoenix when the Suns drafted Nash out of Santa Clara a decade ago — the Clippers set a franchise record with 47 wins and gave the Suns a good chase for 60 games in the Pacific Division.
“We just have to understand that they’re a really good team and they’re playing really good basketball right now,” Suns guard Raja Bell said. “We were 2-2 in the regular season, fairly evenly matched. We’ll have to come in, respect them and understand we have to find the basketball we played late in the last series a lot earlier.”
The Clippers will have the same strategy as the Lakers: Pound the ball inside and take advantage of the impish, shorthanded Suns. But with Brand, who finished sixth in the MVP voting after a monster season, and the rugged Kaman, this L.A. team has talent to go with toughness.
“Everyone tries to do that against us. No surprise there,” said Suns coach Mike D’Antoni, who served as an assistant to Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy when the two were in Portland in 2000-01. “How we run and respond is the key. If we can do what we do, if we move the ball and make shots, we’ll be fine.”
In all four meetings during the season, the winning team won by at least 10 points. The Suns pasted the Clippers by 31 March 15 at home, and exactly three weeks later lost to the same team in the same building by 14. There is a healthy respect on both sides.
“They’re a dangerous team,” Brand said. “They are very quick and athletic. Nash is the main key, but they have a whole set of keys on that ring.”
The Suns know they can’t afford to stumble out of the gate this time. After accomplishing something just seven other teams have done in NBA history, crawling out of another 3-1 hole is unlikely.
“We need to understand how close we came to elimination, and how one bad call or one missed shot could of had us fishing right now,” Bell said. “I think you have to hang on to that a little bit, as much as you can without letting it affect your performance in this series.”