The suns weren't
five minutes removed from their emotional, Kobe-stopping, back-from-the-dead
first-round win over the Lakers last Saturday night when second-round dread set
in. As the Phoenix players and coaches came charging into their US Airways
Center locker room after a 121-90 Game 7 smackdown, it was as if Clippers stars
Elton Brand and Sam Cassell were standing by the steam table munching their
burgers and fries and saying, "It's about time to get it on, fellas." �
There was a tangible reminder of what lay ahead as well. In the coaches'
office, assistant Marc Iavaroni picked up the 58-page loose-leaf notebook that
had been prepared by chief scout Todd Quinter, the one with los angeles
clippers scouting report in bold letters, and said, "Do we have to start
studying this already?" He knew the answer. � As much as the NBA likes a
protracted first-round playoff series--this one began 13 days earlier with a
107--102 Phoenix victory--it also likes quick turnarounds for the second round
to maximize weekend TV audiences. And so Phoenix, like the Spurs and the
Cavaliers, had to quickly curb its enthusiasm after closing out Round 1. Sure,
it was nice that the Suns had become only the eighth team to win a series after
being down 3--1. And that they had held scoring champ Kobe Bryant to one
second-half point. And that they had ousted Lakers coach Phil Jackson for the
first time in his 15 first-round series. But the Clippers tip-off would take
place in Phoenix a mere 48 hours later. � "Sometimes playing right away can
be an advantage," said coach Mike D'Antoni over a postgame meal at Pizzeria
Bianco, a restaurant near the arena. "There seems to be something about
going right into a Game 1 that, for whatever reason, you sustain your energy.
When it can start getting hard is Game 2."
D'Antoni proved to
be prophetic. In a wildly entertaining opener on Monday night, Phoenix pulled
away for a 130 -123 win. Though one of the Suns' biggest fears--how their shaky
D would hold up against the punishing Brand (a dominant 40 points on 18-for-22
shooting)--was realized, Phoenix showed no signs of fatigue.
consciousness had set in with the Suns even before their epic series with the
Lakers was over. As the seconds ticked away in Game 7, forward Shawn Marion
felt not only elation but also the weight of expectations. "Who do I have
to guard next?" he asked assistant Phil Weber. "[Seven-foot Chris]
Kaman or Brand?" The look-ahead theme continued in the locker room, where
D'Antoni's postgame remarks were both congratulatory and cautionary:
"Unbelievable job, guys. Down 1--3. Take tonight and savor it. But know we
have the Clippers coming in. We know we can beat those guys.... We kicked Laker
ass, now we can kick Clipper ass." Then point guard Steve Nash (left), who
would receive his second straight MVP trophy the following morning, stepped in.
"I know it's Saturday night and that was a great win," he said.
"But we have a long way to go and we need our rest. Let's think about the
By 7 a.m. on
Sunday the Suns' coaches were huddled in their fourth-floor office at the
arena, Quinter's scouting book opened before them. It begins with a pie chart
that breaks down the percentage of times the Clippers ran certain plays in the
Denver series (post-ups 31%, side pick-and-rolls 17%, etc.). "Well, guys,
we're in the Elite Eight," said D'Antoni. Chairman and CEO Jerry Colangelo
arrived at about eight bearing a box of pastries. "If we get past the
second round," he said, "it's steak in the morning."
Like most teams,
Phoenix divides the scouting assignments during the season among the
assistants. The Lakers had been Iavaroni's responsibility, and the Clippers
belonged to Weber, which means he had them in the playoffs, too. It's his job
to select the clips from which a defensive game plan will be devised and to get
the discussion of tactics started. After that, anyone can say anything at any
time, an exercise in both democracy and chaos.
"What do you
want to do on pick-and-rolls?" asked D'Antoni. (That's generally where all
defensive strategy talks begin.)
"That's a bear
right there because when Elton Brand rolls out, he's as good as anybody in the
league," said Alvin Gentry, who was Brand's coach for two years in Los
Angeles. "We have to stay attached to him."
"Keep in mind
that they're shooting an unbelievable number of pull-ups off the break,"
Weber said. " Cassell will pull, [Cuttino] Mobley will pull, [Corey]
Maggette will pull. Brand has even come down and jacked it. Corralling
[surrounding players in transition] and getting back are key."
harder to scheme because they're a transition team," said Iavaroni.
"The Lakers set up their offense, and that allowed you to set up your
continued nonstop for three hours, changing directions faster than Nash in the
open floor. Gentry stressed that Brand is devastating in the post going to the
middle but guardable when forced to spin to the baseline. D'Antoni wondered if
they could bring their double teamer on Brand from the baseline, as they did
against the Lakers. They all agreed that they should allow defensive specialist
Quinton Ross to shoot from the outside but couldn't decide whether a similar
strategy should be used for backup point guard Shaun Livingston. Quinter noted
that when Brand is double-teamed he will look for Kaman underneath, and that
Kaman can finish, unlike the purple-and-gold's Kwame Brown.