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Close Is Good Enough

Clippers let a 16-point lead get away, but they hold off Nuggets in opener, 89-87

April 23, 2006|Jason Reid | Times Staff Writer

This playoff stuff is new for the Clippers, so it might take them a while to get things figured out.

Of course, the on-the-job training could be fun.

The Clippers seemed to enjoy their first postseason experience in nine seasons, withstanding the Denver Nuggets' late rally in an 89-87 victory before a raucous sellout crowd at Staples Center.

Vladimir Radmanovic made two free throws with 59.8 seconds remaining, and Denver's Carmelo Anthony missed a potential tying shot at the buzzer, helping the Clippers overcome a series of mistakes down the stretch in their first playoff victory since May 5, 1993, against the Houston Rockets.

The playoffs are as exhilarating as many of the Clippers' first-time participants thought they would be, and as gut-wrenching too.

"The intensity was turned way, way up," said Elton Brand, who scored a team-high 21 points. "It was a lot of fun. It's great.

"We got a feel for the playoffs, for the guys who haven't been here before, and for the intensity and how the refs call it."

In their first playoff game at Staples Center, the Clippers utilized a balanced attack on offense to take the lead in the best-of-seven series while maintaining their home-court advantage.

So, did the Clippers' lack of postseason experience have a negative effect for them?

"The only part [of tonight's game] that the guys didn't know about was that they [officials] don't blow a lot of whistles," Coach Mike Dunleavy said. "The guys expected to get a few calls they didn't get."

In addition to Brand, Sam Cassell scored 19, Cuttino Mobley had 17 and Chris Kaman contributed 15 points and 13 rebounds. Moreover, the Clippers limited the Nuggets, the NBA's best running team, to 10 fastbreak points.

Anthony and Andre Miller scored 25 apiece for Denver, but Anthony missed 17 of 26 field-goal attempts, including all eight in the fourth quarter.

"Getting the first game is super huge," Mobley said. "That's what the home-court advantage is for.

"You have more games than they do at home, and you have to take advantage of it. To win that first game is a big thing."

They had to work hard for it in the end.

With Mobley providing long-range production, he Clippers took a 16-point lead late in the third quarter, on his consecutive three-pointers.

But their offense stalled when Cassell, who led the Clippers with seven assists, went to the bench for a break.

They went more than six minutes without scoring in one stretch from the end of the third to the start of the fourth.

Denver, which had 19 offensive rebounds, went on a 12-0 run to pull within 76-72 with 9:09 left, prompting Dunleavy to call a timeout.

"We always feel we can beat this team and win the series," Denver center Marcus Camby said. "We dug ourselves a hole, being down 16 and expending so much energy trying to tie the game. We didn't have enough to get over the top."

Cassell returned after the timeout and made a three-pointer to give the Clippers a seven-point cushion. Kaman then went to work, scoring seven points in an 8-2 spurt that gave the Clippers another double-digit lead at 87-77 with 4:10 to play.

But the Nuggets wouldn't go away.

The Clippers appeared jittery down the stretch, committing turnovers on four of their final six possessions. Denver scored 10 unanswered points, tying the score at 87-87 on Miller's fastbreak layup with 1:08 left.

"I was disappointed in the second half," Dunleavy said. "We had a 16-point lead and we let them get back into the game based on offensive boards and loose balls."

After Radmanovic was called for a charge, Denver had the ball with 24 seconds to go, trailing by two. But Anthony missed his last two shots, and the Clippers escaped.

"Give the Clippers credit," Anthony said. "They stuck to the game plan, trying to take the ball out of my hands and make someone else beat them. It was in our hands to win the game."

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