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Clippers visit Suns with playoff spot in sight

PHOENIX -- The Los Angeles Clippers are beginning to make things verrrrry interesting in the Western Conference playoff race.

The Clippers' season has been full of drama -- the offseason trade of All-Star Chris Paul, the injuries that overtook them early in the year and forced more than 30 different starting lineups, and the trade of All-Star forward Blake Griffin near the deadline.

Suddenly, perhaps shockingly, the Clippers are back in the hunt for a playoff spot entering the final two weeks of the season.

After hitting a trifecta when other contenders lost earlier Tuesday, the Clippers finished a fine day by overcoming a five-point deficit in the final eight minutes for a 105-98 victory over Milwaukee at the Staples Center before boarding the short flight to Phoenix to meet the dare-we-say tanking Suns at the Talking Stick Resort Arena on Wednesday.

The Clippers (40-34) are riding high while the Suns (19-56) have lost 12 in a row.

Tobias Harris had 19 points, Lou Williams had 16 and Austin Rivers had 10 of his 13 in the fourth quarter when the Clippers overcame the loss of Milos Teodosic to beat the Bucks. Teodosic had 13 points in 16 minutes but was forced out of the game when he aggravated a sore left plantar fascia.

"I just tried to be aggressive," Rivers said in a post-game TV interview, adding that teammates talked to him after the third quarter and encouraged him to do more.

"I just didn't want to let our teammates down. I would have been real frustrated if we'd have lost this game knowing that I didn't give everything. We need everybody to get to these playoffs. As one of the leaders, you have to step up and trust yourself. It was a good team win. I don't want to take any credit. Everybody was huge tonight."

By the time the Clippers tipped off against the Bucks, fellow Western playoff contenders San Antonio, New Orleans and Denver had lost, compressing the already spandex-tight race for the final several playoff spots.

New Orleans (43-32) and San Antonio (43-32) remained tied for fifth in the West, one game behind Oklahoma City (44-31), with Utah (42-32) and Minnesota (42-33) clinging to the final two spots after an off day.

The Clippers closed to with 1 1/2 games of the Timberwolves and pulled one-half game ahead of Denver (40-35).

Getting over the final hurdle will not be easy. Then again, why change now? The Clippers have won three of four after a four-game losing steak that put them on the brink of elimination.

After facing the Suns, the Clippers play six straight games against playoff teams or contenders -- Portland, Indiana, San Antonio, Utah, Denver and New Orleans -- before closing against the Lakers at their shared home April 11.

Phoenix is 9-28 at home, which is the worst home record in the league and is threatening the worst home record in franchise history. The Suns were 11-26 at home in their 1968-69 expansion season, when they also played 14 games at neutral sites (they were 1-13 in those). Since the first season, the Suns had not won fewer than 17 home games in a non-strike season until winning 14 in each of the last two years.

They have lost 27 of their last 29, a dive that has put them in control their own destiny in the race to the bottom.

All the Suns have to do is lose all of their final seven games to insure the best chance at the No. 1 pick in the May draft lottery. Memphis (20-54) and Atlanta (21-53), Orlando (22-51) stand in the way. The Suns have two games remaining against Golden State and one against Houston.

It will be easier if the Suns continue to play without top scorers Devin Booker (24.9 points per game) and TJ Warren (19.6). Booker has missed the last five games with a fractured hand and Warren has missed the last four with a knee injury. Neither practiced Tuesday and both are unlikely to play against the Clippers.

Rookie forward Josh Jackson had 23 points in a loss to Boston on Monday and has scored at least 15 points in his last seven games while averaging 20.7 points, six rebounds and two steals. Walter Davis, Alvan Adams, Richard Dumas and Booker are the only others Suns' rookies to have scored 15 points or more in seven straight contests.

Friends Jayson Tatum of the Celtics and Jackson, the third and fourth players taken in last year's draft, matched up Monday. They played on U.S. national teams three summers in a row.

"A little more energy I think, playing against him," Jackson said. "It's always fun to playing against one of your friends. You've just got that extra compete level, you just want to be able to beat him and then talk trash later, so I'm probably going to get a phone call from him or something."
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