LOS ANGELES - You can forgive the Clippers, playoff novices that they are, for breaking with postseason etiquette and dropping celebratory streamers and confetti from the rafters before Game 3 began Friday night. Perhaps they knew there would be no cause for celebration afterward.
Two nights after being manhandled and embarrassed on their home floor, the Suns gritted their teeth and dug deep in the trenches. They played at the Clippers’ desired tempo and made enough mistakes to fill all the empty seats at the so-called, soldout Staples Center.
Somehow, they won anyway.
Steve Nash, who had made only two of his previous eight shots in the game and struggled through 43 frustrating minutes, hit the one that counted — an off-balance, 14-footer with 3.6 seconds left — to allow the Suns to survive several L.A comeback attempts to win 94-91 and take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series.
“It’s certainly not the Suns’ way, that’s for sure,” Nash said.
Vladimir Radmanovic, who electrified his team and the home crowd with four straight 3-pointers, tried to send the game to overtime with one more, but his 27-footer missed well to the left just before time expired.
It was the first time the Suns have won without scoring 100 points in these playoffs — breaking a string of eight straight sub-100 losses dating back to 2002. It was first time they won a game by three points or less all year.
“We were due. It’s about time we squeezed out one of these,” Suns coach Mike D’Antoni said. “It wasn’t pretty, and a lot of the playoff games will be that way. But we did what we had to do and the guys came hard.
“We played tough defense, we didn’t give them anything easy and we were rewarded for all the hard work. I think we know we can do this, it’s just a matter of being able to sustain it.”
For the first time in the series, the pressure is firmly on the shoulders of the Clippers, who now need a Game 4 win here Sunday to avoid staring down the barrel of playoff extinction.
The Suns, outrebounded 57-26 in Game 2, turned it around on the boards (47-46 Clippers) behind a masterful 32-point, 19-rebound effort from Shawn Marion, who took advantage of some pregame tweaking and adjustments by D’Antoni to roam the paint.
Tim Thomas, getting his first start in the series, added a double-double of his own with 19 points and 14 rebounds as the Suns overcame a miserable 37 percent shooting night (32-for-86) with 23 points from the foul line.
“You give me those numbers before the game (37-percent shooting, 94 points), I’m thinking we’re winning this game,” Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said. “But they keep surprising us.”
It looked like the Suns might break open a tight game and gallop away from the Clippers when they took a 72-63 lead into the fourth quarter and pushed the lead to 11 as Boris Diaw hooked up with Marion on one of several alley-oop plays. But then the Suns went ice cold from the field while the Clippers caught fire.
Well, make that one Clipper.
Radmanovic exploded. His first bomb at 10:38 brought his fading team off the deck. The second at 9:53 plugged in the crowd. His third brought them to a frenzy at 8:44 and the fourth at 7:54 put the Clippers in front at 77-76 and the Suns firmly on their heels.
But Marion tied the game with a clutch 3-pointer — his third of the night — with 2:58 left and Nash put the Suns back in front, this time for good, at 87-86 with two free throws 23 seconds later. Diaw had a huge block on Elton Brand and the Suns got a break when Sam Cassell came on cold off the bench and hoisted up an ill-advised 3-pointer with 1:08 to go and Marion cashed in with a three-point play 19 seconds later to give the Suns breathing room at 92-86.
But the Suns almost coughed it up. Brand answered with a 3-point play with 46.1 seconds left and two Quinton Ross free throws sliced the lead to one before Nash paired up with Corey Maggette on a switch, pushed his way forward and then lofted up his big shot.
As expected, D’Antoni shook up his lineup and defensive assignments after a 25-point pounding in Game 2. Thomas started in place of the struggling James Jones and took the defensive assignment on Brand, while Marion took Cassell and Nash took Ross.
The moves paid dividends in many ways. Brand led the Clippers in scoring once again with 20 points, but missed 10 of 17 shots from the field while Thomas had 11 boards in the first half leading the Suns to a 27-22 edge.