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Despite Defeat, Clippers No Longer a Punch Line

May 23, 2006|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — Amid a trail of three-pointers and a litany of nifty passes leading to easy baskets, the best season in Clippers' history ended abruptly Monday night.

The Phoenix Suns defeated the Clippers, 127-107, at US Airways Center to win the NBA Western Conference semifinal series, four games to three. The Suns will play the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals beginning Wednesday.

The Suns' trademark long-range shooting could not be stopped -- they made 15 of 27 shots from three-point range, continuing a trend in which they connected on a league-record 837 three-pointers during the regular season.

In the end, the Clippers met a fate similar to that of their city rivals, the Lakers, both falling by lopsided margins in playoff Game 7s against the Suns.

Of course, the Clippers were still playing Monday while the Lakers' season had ended 17 days before, a fact not lost on long-suffering Clipper fans.

"They did a good job in this game; they played hard," said Gal Ifrah, a 22-year-old from Reseda who watched the game with a small but vocal group of friends at a Woodland Hills bar. "What can I say? They went further than the Lakers."

Whether the Clippers have turned the corner for good is debatable. Among some NBA observers there is hope; among others, skepticism.

Charles Barkley, a Hall of Fame player who is now a studio analyst for TNT's NBA telecasts summed up the situation for many when he said Monday, "Getting to the Western Conference finals one time in 25 years doesn't mean you've turned the corner. You haven't even gone halfway down the block."

That understood, this season's success was unprecedented for the Clippers and owner Donald T. Sterling, whose Midas touch as a Beverly Hills developer had previously escaped his basketball team.

Since the Clippers moved to Los Angeles from San Diego in 1984, this is only their fourth playoffs series, and their winning percentage has hovered around .340, meaning they were losers in two of every three games.

But the Clippers were 47-35 during this regular season, their best record in L.A. and their second-best mark in the 36-year history of the franchise.

Clipper General Manager Elgin Baylor has amassed a talented young roster that has been shaped on the court by Coach Mike Dunleavy and rewarded financially by Sterling, who only recently cast aside his reputation as a miser.

Indeed, Sterling seemed not-just-happy-to-be-there in the final minutes of Game 7. Sitting stoically with his arms folded, he mostly stared straight ahead, his gaze breaking briefly at one point to accept a congratulatory handshake from actor Billy Crystal, one of the few celebrities to regularly follow the team.

His team's turnaround can be traced to the summer of 2003, when Baylor made an unheralded center from Central Michigan University named Chris Kaman the No. 6 overall pick of the NBA draft. Then, within months, the Clippers signed up-and-coming power forward Elton Brand to an $82-million contract and gave Corey Maggette a deal worth $45 million.

The next summer, the Clippers raised more eyebrows by offering Kobe Bryant $100 million before he decided to re-sign with the Lakers.

Last summer, the Clippers' trend to spend continued, with Cuttino Mobley given a $42-million contract -- making him the biggest free agent to come from another team -- and with Sam Cassell, a veteran guard who brought playoff experience and a healthy swagger, acquired in a trade.

Kaman, a blue-collar type in the mold Clippers fans have come to appreciate, has given the team a solid and steady 7-foot post presence; Brand, whose reputation is that of one of the league's hardest workers and nicest guys, is now recognized among the game's top forwards; Maggette gives the team a player who athletically matches up with anyone; Mobley has been a consistent scorer; and Cassell has shown a veteran's penchant for making big shots in clutch situations.

The moves made Baylor, a Hall of Fame player with the Lakers but a long-suffering foil in his 20 years of calling Sterling's shots with the Clippers, this season's NBA executive of the year.

Whether the team can make that success last will be a prime topic for off-season debate.

For all their underdog appeal, the Clippers are still a distant No. 2 in a two-team NBA town, sharing the local turf with the NBA's glamour franchise, the star-studded Lakers, winners of five league championships during the Magic Johnson-led Showtime era of the 1980s, and, more recently, three titles during the tumultuous Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant partnership.

Notoriety did find the Clippers. While the Lakers won championships, L.A.'s "other team" earned national headlines too -- for futility.

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