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Champs and chumps (cont.)

Posted: Monday May 22, 2006 3:28PM; Updated: Monday May 22, 2006 5:09PM
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Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix Suns

Shawn Marion has been the Suns' iron man in a lengthy duel with the Clips.
Shawn Marion has been the Suns' iron man in a lengthy duel with the Clips.
John W. McDonough/SI

With the series back in Phoenix, look for Sam Cassell and Steve Nash to party like it's 1996. During training camp and the first few months of the 1996-97 season, these former teammates went back and forth in practice, forging the styles of play that would lead them to NBA prominence. With Suns starter Kevin Johnson out for the first three weeks of that season, Cassell developed into a better mid-range shooter, and the type of player a coach could count on for 40 minutes a night. Buoyed by his status as the Phoenix centerpiece in the trade that sent Charles Barkley to Houston, Cassell grew comfortable with the idea of leading a team and taking over in crunch time.

Nash, meanwhile, had to bide his time as a backup, but that didn't stop him from impressing. He had a nine-point, six-assist performance against the Chicago Bulls during the season's second week that inspired Michael Jordan to dump a pair of his game-worn shoes on the Suns' rookie. Yeah, the Suns started 0 of 13, and yeah, Cassell was traded to Dallas by New Year's Eve and Nash was a third-stringer by Thanksgiving, but the seeds were sown.

Energized by the magnitude of this contest, Cassell and Nash will dominate the ball and the game tonight.

They'll get help, respectively, from Elton Brand and Shawn Marion. Brand's hot touch hasn't cooled off; he's shooting 59 percent from the floor in the series and made two thirds of his shots in a desperate Game 6 performance. He's averaging an even 30 a game, with 10.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 3.5 blocks. Lest we forget, this is Brand's first time in the postseason, and he's offering swift and continual kicks to the nether-regions of the types who swiftly and continually offered that he couldn't ply his impressive statistical trade on a winning team.

Marion hasn't been as consistent as his Clippers counterpart, but his play in Games 3, 5 and 6 was superb. He's played 97 of Phoenix's last 106 minutes, and he's averaged 24.8 points, 13.2 rebounds, three assists and two steals in the series. He broke through in Game 6 by hitting four of his seven three-point attempts (after missing 20 of his previous 23 from behind the arc) and could catch fire at home in Game 7.

One man's prediction

Having had three full days off before tonight's tribute to our 43rd President (the Decider), both teams should have fresh legs and once again use shortened rotations. The Suns are too comfortable at home, where they'll be more confident in taking chances and pushing the ball. Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy's schemes work well to deny the opposition transition buckets, but his team will be stuck balancing the temptation of crashing the offensive boards (they're plus-26 in the series) or getting back to stop the potential fast-break buckets. Suns 112, Clippers 107.