Schadenfreude and petty rivalries aside, Clipperblog is thrilled with the Phoenix matchup, not because it thinks the Suns are particularly vulnerable - except to abject humiliation by Robert Sarver convulsing in an orange jumpsuit at midcourt like he's an inmate trying to flag down his dinner check - but because preparing for PHX is the ultimate basketball IQ test for your team. 

More so than against any other team in the L, a seven-game series against these guys requires a custom plan.  You can try to shoehorn your sets and defensive rotations into 48 minutes of basketball and insist that your strengths will trump their weaknesses, but anyone with a broccoli fart's worth of sense knows that's a house bet. 

We made the observation last month in the "spokes on a wheel" post that what makes the Suns so difficult to defend is that they have five guys on the floor who can all dribble-penetrate, pass the ball and shoot from 20+ feet.   This versatility offers PHX more options on a given offensive set than an opponent can realistically defend. 

So you have to make choices. 

To their credit, the Lakers made some terrific choices during long stretches of their series, most notably they stifled Shawn Marion bouncing off those baseline screens and prevented him from getting loose below the foul line for that freaky jump shot he loves so much. 

But you don't get something for nothing.  For exerting so much energy and attention in pushing PHX off their low spots and preventing too much penetration (which they did well), the Lakers got killed on high screens and that beautiful drag play that Nash loves to run with both Diaw and Thomas from the top of the circle. 

So how are the Clippers going to deal with a front line that loves to lure its less agile defenders out to the circle?  What's going to happen when Diaw pulls Kaman out, Brand gets caught on a down screen and now Nash and the entire Phoenix cavalry is storming the basket?  If you collapse, you know that Nash will just dish it out to the arc where Jones and Bell will be wide open.  And if you hold the perimeter, then Nash is going to drive paint, then either lay up one of those teardrops, or dish it to Marion rolling off that screen...or Thomas running weak side baseline. 

See what I mean?

I don't want to keep referring to April 5 like it's some celebration of independence - a day to be enshrined into Clipper history when, each year, we'll paint Baghdad-sized murals of Keith Closs on the side of the Hotel Figueroa, but the Clippers figured something out that night:

If a team's primary strength is, as Doug Collins pointed out the other night, its instinctive ability to know where each of the other four guys is at any given moment on the offensive end of the floor, then the best thing to do is force them off their spots.  

And "forcing them" doesn't mean getting physical in the traditional sense - because Phoenix's offensive players aren't about establishing position as much as they are establishing "space." 

When you defend Phoenix, you're not covering a man, you're covering a space.

Each Sun declares a little area code for himself - a lane, as it were - in an offensive set.  And if you can clog the right space, then you can disrupt their offense.  Sure, no team will convert more broken sets than PHX, but you can live with a few three-pointers so long as you're not allowing the Suns to establish that spacing - that comfort level they achieve when they know where their teammate will be when they need him.  A person living in a house can navigate it in pitch black darkness, but if you rearrange the furniture one night, they'll impale themselves on the fireplace stoker.   

The Clippers did exactly that on April 5 in Phoenix; they stuck their best defender - the guy with the quickest feet - on Nash, then had Radmanovic and Livingston patrol the high posts.  Vlad is often derided as a crappy defensive player - and I wouldn't disagree that, one-on-one in the half court, he's too vulnerable off the dribble to man the wing...and too dainty to guard the post.  But Phoenix is a lucky situation for Vlad, because it demands more length and speed than anything else. 

So much as it sounds verboten, I'm with John R.: I think you have to start Livingston over Sam in the series - and I don't think there's another matchup in the league (save Seattle) where I'd make that call.  Sam will have his opportunities in this series - and will probably be a difference-maker in at least one game - but having him out there on the defensive end trying to contend with Raja Bell or James Jones in a motion offense would be suicidal. 

More tomorrow.