One of the biggest keys to the Los Angeles Clippers' 2005-06 season was the play of veteran guard Sam Cassell. Conversely, his intermittent absences this season have contributed to the team's disappointing first half.

With Cassell back and playing well, the Clippers look to continue their climb toward .500 on Tuesday night when they face the undermanned Milwaukee Bucks at Staples Center.

The Clippers (19-21) had endured 12 straight losing seasons before acquiring Cassell from Minnesota on Aug. 12, 2005. Sparked by his play at the point and veteran leadership, Los Angeles went 47-35 and reached the playoffs for the first time since 1996-97.

This season, however, has not gone as smoothly for Cassell and the Clippers.

The 37-year-old guard has missed 11 games with chronic foot problems and Los Angeles has spent most of the season near last place in the Pacific Division.

"It was the first time I'd ever had it, so I didn't know how to respond to it," Cassell said of plantar fasciitis. "I had teammates who had it before, but I thought it can't be that bad. It's bad. It makes you miserable. You think you're able to do something and one wrong cut here or one wrong cut there and you're back at square one."

After missing eight straight games with the injury, Cassell has looked very sharp while playing each of the last six, averaging 19.5 points and 8.5 assists. The Clippers have won four times in that span to pull within two games of .500.

Elton Brand scored a season-high 34 points, and Cassell added 21 and a season-best 14 assists to help the Clippers to a 112-91 victory over visiting Memphis on Saturday.

Cassell played 36 minutes while fellow point guard Shaun Livingston sat out his second straight game with a sprained right ankle.

"Sam's been out with injuries and his conditioning isn't great," coach Mike Dunleavy said. "There are a lot of nights when he's really dragging, physically, but we've been working in practice, trying to fill his tank up a little bit so that he will be able to finish."

Despite their inconsistent play this season, the Clippers have remained a strong home team. They've won five of their last six and 14 of 21 at Staples Center.

Milwaukee (17-23) lost its second straight on a four-game road trip and third in a row overall Sunday, 99-95 to Portland.

Earl Boykins scored 28 points and Charlie Bell added 23 for the Bucks, who had only 10 healthy players and dropped to 1-8 in their last nine games.

Missing from the lineup were forwards Bobby Simmons, Brian Skinner and Charlie Villanueva, and guards Michael Redd and Mo Williams.

Redd is out with a left patellar tendon strain and Williams was sidelined with a shoulder sprain. Simmons is done for the season after surgery on his heel, and Villanueva had tendinitis in his right shoulder.

Skinner is the latest casualty, sitting out Sunday due to a stomach virus.

"We can't keep digging ourselves in these types of holes," Bell said. "We're a better team than that. We've lost a lot offensively but that shouldn't affect us defensively. If our offensive guys are out that just means we have to step it up even more and play hard."

The Clippers have won three straight meetings with the Bucks and five of the last six. Los Angeles has won six in a row at home over Milwaukee since a 104-85 loss March 30, 2000.


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