PHOENIX — Jeff McInnis ran a fade pattern in the dying seconds Friday, turning his back to the basket in order to accept an inbounds pass from Darius Miles. McInnis desperately wanted to get closer to the basket, but Phoenix Suns blocked his path.
Three seconds, two seconds, one second...
McInnis stopped where he was, roughly 20 feet from the basket, turned and lofted a jump shot over Stephon Marbury. The ball left his hands a nanosecond before the final buzzer sounded, swishing through the hoop to the sounds of Clipper cheers.
The Clippers had pulled out a 96-94 season-saving victory over the Suns before a stunned crowd of 18,508 at America West Arena. Now, tonight's game against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center is meaningful.
A loss Friday would have been devastating to the Clippers' playoff hopes. After all, they have only nine games remaining. But by rallying from an 18-point deficit against the Suns, the ninth-place Clippers moved within 31/2 games of the eighth-place Jazz in the battle for the final Western Conference playoff spot.
The teams also play Wednesday at Salt Lake City.
Three seconds before McInnis' winning basket from the right wing, Marbury had tied the score, 94-94, by swishing a three-point basket over McInnis on the left wing. After a Clipper timeout, McInnis saved the season.
"I think we've had some pretty good wins this season," Coach Alvin Gentry said after the Clippers ended a three-game losing streak. "This was a good win because it came under a crisis situation."
It's one thing to rally from 18 points down to defeat the New York Knicks on Feb. 3, with a good chunk of the season still ahead of them. And it's quite another to erase an 18-point deficit against the Suns, winners of three games in a row, this late in the season and with so much at stake.
"Tonight was the first time I felt like we were putting too much pressure on ourselves," McInnis said after scoring the last of his 20 points.
The Clippers played like a team that knew what to do in the first half against the Suns. They simply didn't get the job done--missing open shots, failing to adequately defend and generally making a mess of the first 24 minutes. They tied a season low with 32 points by halftime. They also scored 32 points en route to a 30-point loss Dec. 14 against the Lakers.
Down, 43-25, after a 19-2 Phoenix run late in the half, the Clippers regrouped. A 7-0 Clipper run to end the half cut their deficit to a more manageable 43-32. Next, power forward Elton Brand scored two of his team-leading 23 points on free throws and McInnis made a three-pointer to start the third quarter, and suddenly the Clippers were within 43-37.
A 10-0 run late in the third vaulted the Clippers into the lead, 66-63. Things stayed tight until the end, when Marbury made his tying three-pointer after a defensive breakdown.
McInnis and Corey Maggette were supposed to switch defensive assignments if McInnis got picked off by a Sun. When it happened, Maggette stayed with his man and left McInnis to scramble after Marbury.
"It's all mental plays," McInnis said. "We didn't switch and Stephon made the big three. It's playoff time now. One mistake could mean the season."
McInnis and his teammates gathered around Gentry, who gave them several options with the ball at half court after the timeout. First, Miles could find Quentin Richardson for a medium-range jumper or a quick drive to the basket. Second, Miles could go to Brand on the low block. Third, Miles could give it to McInnis.
"Stephon cut me off from where I wanted to go," McInnis said. "So I stepped back and hit the shot. I wanted to get as close as I could. I had no intention of taking a deep shot. Stephon played good defense. I just had to let it go."
McInnis jogged away in a mild celebration and his teammates sprinted from the bench to mob him. They weren't about to quibble about the way things transpired Friday. A victory was a victory.
"Everybody stepped up tonight," Brand said. "It was definitely one of our better wins. We regrouped at halftime. The guys hit big shots. We definitely needed that one. If we lost, [tonight's game against Utah] wouldn't mean anything. Now it means something."