Presumably, no one around the country watched Saturday's Game 7 of the first round playoff series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns with more trepidation than Los Angeles Clippers swingman Quinton Ross. He was watching his own sentencing, finding out whether he would be assigned the task of guarding Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, the NBA's leading scorer, or Suns guard Steve Nash, hours away from being named the league's MVP for the second straight season.
With the Suns' 121-90 blowout victory, Ross has drawn Nash and a terrific challenge over the next two weeks, but one his teammates believe he can handle.
"People just don't understand how important Quinton Ross is to this basketball team," Clippers point guard Sam Cassell told the Los Angeles Times last week. "The defense he plays ... "
The Clippers know that Ross can contain Nash because he has done it before, holding him to a very un-MVP-like nine points, five assists and five turnovers on April 5 as the visitors from L.A. handed Phoenix a 119-105 victory, one of two head-to-head victories by the Clippers in four matchups this season.
That April game was one of only five times this season Nash was limited to five or fewer assists and one of only seven times he failed to score double figures. Add it up, and by the NBA's Efficiency Rating, it was Nash's third-worst game of the season. Naturally, it will serve as a blueprint for what the Clippers hope to do in this series.
As best as I can tell (with a hat tip to the indispensable ClipperBlog, that game was the first time in which Ross had the primary defensive assignment of covering Nash, as opposed to point guards Cassell and Shaun Livingston. In a March 15 game in which Ross was not on Nash, the Suns point guard had his third best game of the season by efficiency rating. In the first two Clippers-Suns matchups, Nash averaged 18 points and 14.5 assists, albeit on substandard 40.7 percent shooting.
Because Ross is not as big and physical as many defensive specialists, Nash is an ideal matchup for him. However, Ross' role will likely entail more than just defending Nash. If and when the Clippers decide to switch pick-and-rolls involving Nash, Ross will have to defend Suns big men Boris Diaw and Tim Thomas in the post. Diaw destroyed the Lakers guards down low, averaging 17.8 points on 53.2 percent shooting in the series. And when the Lakers were forced to double-team, being a point guard in a 6-foot-8 body meant Diaw could pick apart the Lakers and find the Suns' shooters open beyond the 3-point line.