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By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, May 18, 2006

PHOENIX

Welcome to Suns vs. Clippers, the most exciting playoff basketball you've never seen and might miss altogether. It was just before 2 a.m. back in the East when Raja Bell hit a three-pointer from the corner at the end of the first overtime that was so dramatic it brought jaded old sportswriters out of their seats in excitement. And it was 2:18 Wednesday morning when the Suns dribbled out the final seconds on a double-overtime Game 5 playoff victory over the Clippers that was so sweetly played it demands the full seven-game treatment.

Of course, you'd better be living in the Pacific time zone or be as nocturnal as a bat to stay with something that ends at 2:18 in the East, 1:18 in Middle America and even 12:18 in the Rockies. And it's too bad because all five games have been foot-stomping good, full of soaring and shooting and passing. It's exactly the kind of basketball that could bring back the fans who drifted away from the NBA when Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls eight years ago. Problem is, it's like an invitational now, with hardly anybody outside of California and Arizona having any idea how much fun this whole thing is.

The best thing about being here, in the West, is that Rasheed Wallace is 2,500 miles away. Of course, Wallace may not be anywhere, except on vacation, which might be a blessing considering what a nuisance he's been.

What's he going to say now that the Pistons are down 3-2 to Cleveland after that shocker Wednesday night? He and his guarantees and his speeches about the sun shining even on a dog (read: the Cavs) look even dumber now. And while wind is rattling around inside his empty head, the legend of LeBron James is in full bloom, especially if Cavaliers can take out the Pistons on Friday night. Boy, do the Wizards feel even worse now, seeing a team they should have beaten win three straight against the Pistons, a good team but a team nowhere near as good as its players believe they are.

Anyway, while the Pistons vs. Cavs games are played before the salad is served, Suns vs. Clippers is the post-desert. Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni, bleary-eyed like everybody else in the Valley on Wednesday, told reporters he's getting plenty of phone calls from aggravated buddies back East. "My friends on the East Coast are calling me, saying, "You're killing me with these games ending at 2 o'clock in the morning when I have to get up at six."

Game 5, specifically, was one thrill after another, from the Suns building a 19-point lead, to the Clippers erasing it and forcing overtime on Sam Cassell's three-pointer in the final half-minute of regulation, to Bell's three-pointer to force the second overtime. If not an instant classic, it was forever memorable, the kind of game that ties your stomach in knots but ultimately makes you smile because you were in the building. It was so tense that even the mistakes had a certain glamour to them, whether we're talking about Cassell's failure to get the ball across midcourt or Tim Thomas flinging the ball over Shawn Marion's head when the Suns' one remaining timeout would have given Phoenix a chance to win in regulation.

The game had so many juicy little details, it's easily lost that Marion went down in a heap with a sprained ankle but limped back to make a key basket in the second overtime. Thomas, having fouled out after scoring 25 points in a fabulous duel with the Clippers' Elton Brand, said: "I was over Shawn telling him: 'You've got to get up. You're from Chicago; you're tougher than that!' Whatever I could do to help, man . . . whatever. You foul out in a game like that, it's like being behind a fence having to watch your big brother in a fight and [you] can't help him."

It really was the ultimate in the thrill of victory for the Suns and the agony of defeat for the Clippers, all played out before an increasingly star-studded crowd that Tuesday night included the Clippers' No. 1 fan, Billy Crystal, and Jack Nicholson, who appeared to be courtside courtesy of some sort of loan from the Lakers. There's no telling who will have jumped aboard the Clippers bandwagon Thursday night when the series resumes in Los Angeles with Game 6, which has an unfortunate start time of 10 p.m. EDT. The Clippers returned to California early Wednesday, probably still in agony over every little detail. Cassell wanted his team to use up a remaining foul on Bell as soon as he caught the ball in the corner. But Coach Mike Dunleavy figured it was too risky with Bell in a catch-and-shoot frame of mind. "You gotta put Raja Bell in the fifth row . . . with the popcorn man," Cassell said. "Raja had been hitting those all night." He was 5 of 7 from behind the arc.

In fact, Bell has hit 22 of 39 (56.4 percent) of his three-point attempts in this series, suggesting that Cassell's analysis is right on. For the playoffs, Bell has made 34 for 65 (52.3 percent) three-point attempts, including the one that might have saved the season at the end of the first overtime.

Dare I suggest that surely Kobe Bryant has heard of Bell by now?

And Bell didn't have his trigger finger freeze up on him in the fourth quarter as Kobe's did.

Bell even said aloud in the huddle that if D'Antoni called his number, he'd hit the shot.

"That's kinda out of character for me," Bell admitted.

He already was an important player when he put Kobe down toward the end of Game 5 of Lakers-Suns. But it's as if standing up to Bryant has emboldened him in some way, freed him. Very quietly, and certainly not on the record, the Suns' players feel that Bell taking on Bryant emboldened the whole Phoenix team. Steve Nash's legs were so far gone he couldn't come close to making a jump shot. It's a sign of just how valuable Nash is that he scored 17 points and handed out 13 assists, yet everybody in the Valley awoke Wednesday with questions about Nash's legs and his stroke. "I'm going to feel better one of these days . . . hopefully tomorrow," the two-time MVP said. When reporters persisted in asking about his physical condition (back, ankles, legs), Nash said: "I'll be fine. I'll be out there tomorrow, probably play 40-plus minutes."

Nobody would be surprised if Nash has to play 50-plus minutes Thursday, which would mean at least one more overtime in a series that has become a case of more definitely being better. "I just hope we don't do our typical outing and give 'em a game back just because we're a game up," Nash said.

Those lucky enough to watch the games without a rooting interest hope Nash is right, at least for Thursday. The Clippers are hellbent on winning Thursday night, which would force the whole party back here to Phoenix for Game 7 on Monday night.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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