Coach Mike Dunleavy was encouraged by the play of his team the prior year. They’d played very well when they were healthy. He knew, however, that the team had a missing link. That link was filled with a dramatic August trade with Minnesota. The Clippers acquired veteran Sam Cassell and a conditional first round draft pick from the Timberwolves in exchange for Marko Jaric.
Sam gave the team team some much-needed “swagger.” His presence was felt from day one. They won nine of their first 11 games. Elton Brand had a career and All-Star season, averaging 24.7 points and 10 rebounds a game. Cassell was the catalyst.
The team had also signed free agent shooter Cutino Mobley. He helped stretch the defenses with his long range shooting and was another steady hand in the backcourt along with Sam. Maggette played only 32 games because of injury, but the team just kept winning. They added another shooter in Vladimir Radmonovic from Seattle in a mid-season trade of Chris Wilcox. He’d add 66 three-pointers in his 30-games in a Clippers uniform.
Chris Kaman averaged a near double-double in his third season, and Q. Ross was sent after the opponent’s top offensive player night in and night out. This was a team carefully crafted to win and win they did. The final regular season mark stood at 47-35. It was good enough for second place in the Pacific Division, seven games behind Phoenix and two games ahead of the third place Lakers.
The stage was set for a first round playoff match-up against George Karl’s Denver Nuggets. The Clippers used their home court advantage with a pair of wins at STAPLES Center. Denver captured Game 3 on their home court, but that was it for the Nuggets. The Clippers breezed through Games 4 and 5 with Ross frustrating Carmelo Anthony and with Brand, Cassell, Maggette and Mobley teaming up to share the well-balanced scoring load. The Clippers won the best-of-seven series four games to one.
It looked like an all Los Angeles second round series was in store when the Lakers jumped out to a surprising 3-1 lead on Phoenix in their first round match-up. The Suns, who’d won 54 games in the regular season, bounced back to win three in a row to beat the Lakers in seven games. That set the stage for the Clippers and the Suns in a classic second round match-up.
The Clippers had averaged only 95 points per game in their first round series win over Denver. Phoenix had scored 109 a game in ousting the Lakers. The question was: can the Clippers offense keep pace with the “shoot in seven seconds” pace of the Suns?
They tried in game one in Phoenix before falling in a wild one, 130-123. Coach Dunleavy made some defensive adjustments for Game 2 in the Valley of the Sun and came away with a shocking 122-97 victory on the Sun’s home hardwood. The series moved to L.A. for Game 3. Defense dominated this offensive series in this game with the Suns coming up with a 94-91 victory.
Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni put forward Shawn Marion on Cassell. His size bothered Sam and slowed the suddenly high-octane Clippers offense. The Clips evened the series in Game 4, scoring a 114-107 win at STAPLES Center. It was time for a memorable Game 5 back in Phoenix. This looked to be the series pivotal game. The winner here would need to win just one of the final two games to reach the Conference finals against either Dallas or San Antonio.
The contest was an instant classic, providing the quintessential playoff roller coaster ride. Marion posted a 36-point, 20-rebound effort for the Suns, but Clipper counter-part Elton Brand added 33 and 15 of his own. The result was a tie score at the end of regulation. The Clippers led by three with five seconds remaining in overtime. Phoenix had the ball, and they were the best 3-point shooting team in NBA history. Sure enough, with the Clippers bench right in his ear, Raja Bell caught the inbounds pass on the run, turned a fired a buzzer beating “3” from the left corner… “Bingo.” Tie game and a second overtime.
The Suns dominated the second extra session and went back to Los Angeles for Game 6 with a 3-2 series lead. The Clippers bounced back nicely to score a 118-106 victory before an appreciative sell-out crowd, and it all came down to a deciding Game 7 in Phoenix on May 22nd. Sadly, it wasn’t close as the Suns scored an easy 127-107 win. The Clippers season was over, but it had been memorable.
I remember thinking: “You know, I could get used to this.”
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