There's a telling moment in the opening minute of the fourth quarter, long after the paint had dried. Off an Aaron Williams steal on the other end, Daniel Ewing brings the ball up with the Clips down 22. He swings it over to James Singleton way out on the near side arc. James fakes the three - he has just sunk one - then dribbles back up top and returns the ball to Ewing. Not to be deterred from executing this phenomenal two-man game with Singleton 25 feet from the basket, Ewing returns the ball to Singleton, who has TT setting a screen on James Jones, with Pat Burke hedging. Singleton can't decide what he wants to do. Meanwhile, Corey floats in and out of your television screen, about 25 feet from the basket beyond the top of the arc. When Corey does appear, it's an all too familiar pose - weight on his back foot, eyes on the ball, wearing a nothing-you-have-over-there-is-better-than-Corey-Maggette-isolating-on-Raja-Bell expression. As Singleton holds the ball, Maggette keeps sliding ball side, so that at :09, there isn't a single Clipper on the weak side. The ball goes over to Corey, who is straddling the arc. When the ball lands in Corey's hands, Aaron Williams - bless his heart - sets a screen on Bell, which opens up the entire left side for Corey against Amare on the switch. Meanwhile, Thomas has just shifted up to his spot. With :08, Corey can drive, kick it back out to Thomas, or ... of course ... shoot the ball. For Corey, proximity to the ball always takes precedence over how he can help space the floor in a halfcourt set. Damned if he'll ever settle for being a skip pass away.
The defensive bête noire of the night comes a few minutes earlier, with about 5:40 left in the third quarter, following a Raja Bell steal. Nash runs it up the floor. When he crosses over the arc, he's got the following two choices: A trailing Amare with nothing between him and the basket but Tim Thomas at the smiley-face stripe underneath, or Shawn Marion in the corner, Thomas being the closest guy to him. In essence, it's the defensive rendition of the aforementioned offensive set: Every Clipper is on the ball side of the court. Nash penetrates and, as every Clipper collapses, he delivers a swing pass to Marion in the left corner. He's Shaun's guy but -- see if this makes any sense - the closest guy to Marion as he launches the shot is Steve Nash, whose momentum has carried him that way. He actually beats Shaun Livingston to the close-out.
And that's the thing with Phoenix. Every guy on the team has the instinctive ability to find, at any given instant, the exact spot on the floor where he serves the most usefulness. The Clippers - who never had great spacing, but whose defensive rotations and switches had become pretty good by last May - are now the fundamental opposites.
It was interesting to watch parts of the game on TNT when I got home, because I wanted to hear what Doug Collins and, to some extent, David Aldridge and Charles Barkley had to say about the team. Collins showered Mike Dunleavy and the team with sympathy, while Barkley, who drank the Clipper Kool-Aid early last season, called the Clippers the biggest disappointment in the league. I like Aldridge a lot, but was befuddled by his prescription for the Clips - that they acquire Jason Kidd. What would the Clippers accomplish by adding a point guard who has two years and $40 million remaining on his deal after this season? While Kidd is a distributive genius, he can't shoot the ball any better than Shaun. Is there anyone who honestly believes that Kidd could improve the Clippers enough to propel them into the second round of the playoffs?
There's one nice thing about closing up shop early on the season. While other teams are frantically trying to improve themselves, the Clippers can take the long view. The Clippers should be asking themselves what, beyond Maggette, they are holding that's of any value to the rest of the league. To that end, they should see if there's a market for Sam Cassell. For an on-the-cusp team in need of a little attitudinal injection - say, Cleveland -- Cassell could be intriguing. In contrast, Sam is useful to the Clippers only if they're contending. The Clips could clear $6.1 million from next year's number, and hand over the team to Shaun Livingston. While making the postseason for a second consecutive year is of some symbolic import to the organization, figuring out, once and for all, if Shaun Livingston is The Guy, is more crucial. It's one thing to underachieve, but it's quite another to squander the flexibility that underachievement affords you.