Getting Home Court Back

The team will leave for San Antonio tomorrow, Friday, knowing that it is vitally important to regain home court advantage.

(Barry Gossage/NBAE Photos)

We have played hard all year for the second-best record in the league and now with Dallas’ early departure we hold home court throughout the playoffs. We now have to make the most of it.

Having dropped Game 1 at home it was great to see the way the guys bounced back and played with their backs against the wall in Game 2.

The team was able to make several adjustments between the games and so far it looks to have worked. I have a feeling that this series will be like a chess match with each team making adjustments as the series goes forth.

Both teams have contrasting styles and I believe that a big key to victory will be which team is able to impose its will on the other and force them to play the other’s style. For the Suns it will be to force the Spurs into a fast-paced game.

This is an amazing time of the year; I cannot imagine being home right
now only watching the playoffs on ABC. The atmosphere not only in the
locker room, but out on the court, is amazing with all the guys knowing
that this is a chance that may never come around for us again. And for
the fans, that by the looks and especially the sounds of things, want a championship brought to Phoenix in 202007.

Look forward to returning to Phoenix for Game 5 in front of our fans
and defending home court. See and hear you guys then.

Cheers

Superfan, Superstitious

The world of sports is rife with superstitions. The most famous ones are found in baseball: Don’t talk to a pitcher in the midst of throwing a no-hitter, don’t step on the chalked baselines when running onto the field. But in all sports, one superstition holds true: Don’t Mess With A Winning Streak.

Macaroni and Cheese: Breakfast, lunch and dinner of champions.

That means do everything every day the exact way you did it the day the winning streak started. Change nothing. And it usually applies to players. But we truly devoted fans know the truth: Each defensive stop the Suns make is a direct result of how loud we cheer. Every three pointer drained comes from how hard we clap. Every offensive surge can be traced to just how much we believe, and how many good vibes we send to the players on the floor. Fans affect the game. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon us as well to honor the sports superstition and Not Mess With A Winning Streak.

The Suns, having won the last game in their playoff series with the Spurs, are on a winning streak. And I’m not messing with it. I’m doing everything, every day, exactly the way I did it the day the Suns won Game 2.

Unfortunately, the Suns won Game 2 on Tuesday. Game 3 won’t take place until Saturday (a potentially momentum-destroying bit of scheduling that pleases me not at all). That means:

• My last shower was Tuesday morning. Today I walked past my last surviving houseplant, and it said, “Forget it,” collapsed, and died. Yesterday I pitched an animated series to a network here in Los Angeles, and was turned down when the executive said the series, “just didn’t smell right – er, feel right, for our network.” He seemed very distracted during my presentation by his own retching.

 

• I’ve been wearing the same clothes since Tuesday morning. On the positive side, it sure cuts down on laundry costs, and I just have to look at my shirt to remember every single meal I’ve had since breakfast on the 8th. On the negative side, my friends have scheduled an intervention for me on Sunday, whether the Suns win or lose Game 3.

 

• This morning, my beard got caught in my vacuum cleaner (We Superfans push out so much energy rooting for our teams that we frequently experience accelerated hair growth). Oh well, at least some part of me is clean.

 

• Since Tuesday, I’ve had the exact same set of meals every day. Mac and cheese for breakfast, mac and cheese for lunch, mac and cheese for dinner. Of course, this is true even when the Suns aren’t on a winning streak, so no big deal there.

 

• I’ve been listening to the same music now for four days, and I have to say, taking his catalog as a whole, Barry Manilow is kind of overrated.

Personally, of course, I hope the Suns sweep the remainder of the series against the Spurs, take the Western Conference Finals in four straight, then power through the NBA Finals in another four games. My girlfriend, supportive as she is, wants the Suns to win as much as I do, but I don’t think she wants to see it play out in the same way. After all, if my dream scenario comes true, I won’t be showering until mid-June.

Suns: Lovable. Spurs: Not so much.

Once upon a time, I am ashamed to admit, I thought the Spurs were kind of cool. I was a kid, mind you, and I didn’t think the Spurs were cooler than the Suns, of course, but there were some things about them that I liked.

 

  • They had a great logo. I’ve always been a big fan of sports team logos, and the Spurs’ fascinated me, the clever way the “U” was an angled spur, the solidity of the letters, and so on. I even had a Spurs pennant for a little while (it’s important to note it hung beneath the Suns’ pennant on my wall). They almost ruined it a number of years ago by adorning the logo with pastel stripes, but luckily thought better of it and got rid of them.  

    (Smaller notes on logos: The NBA used to have some great ones. The old New Orleans Jazz logo was a masterpiece, the Buffalo Braves with their stylized letter “B” that incorporated a Native American feather, and the all-time best, the Atlanta Hawks, with their brilliant use of negative space to show a hawk’s profile. Nowadays, by far the best logo in the NBA is the Suns’ “firebird” logo, with “PHX” stretched across the basketball. No other team logo even comes close)

     

     

  • They came from a strange place. Not just San Antonio, which seemed about as accessible and familiar to me as an 8-year old as Neptune (I’ve since been there, and it’s lovely), but somewhere even more peculiar… the ABA. My first year of interest in pro basketball was the American Basketball Association’s last year of existence, so it has always been, to me, a league of stories and legend, somewhat mysterious and exotic, related to the Suns only in the sense that Connie Hawkins once played there, briefly. When the Nuggets, Nets, Pacers and Spurs made the NBA scene in 1976, it was like they’d walked in from the wild, wild, west.  

     

  • The Spurs had great, flamboyant personalities among their players, some of whom were pretty terrific. Any discussion of Spurs history starts, of course, with George Gervin, the Iceman, originally a Suns draft pick (it’s true), a rail-thin scoring machine, and the man of a thousand finger-rolls. I think every kid my age had that famous poster of him sitting on those blocks of ice (For his sake, I hope that was a quick photo shoot). There was Larry Kenon, a small forward who was pretty talented, but maybe not as talented as he thought he was. He gave himself the nickname “Mr. K,” and once famously declared himself the best small forward in the NBA – whereupon every small forward in the NBA lit him up like a pinball machine for the next three weeks. There was James Silas, a point guard graced with the nickname, “The Late Mr. Silas,” not because he was, you know, dead, but because he regularly exhibited heroics at the ends of games. And their center was the enormous, utterly immobile Billy Paultz, who will forever be known by the wonderful nom du hoops, “The Whopper.” Later on, they even picked up one of my favorite players ever, Artis Gilmore, who had the biggest Afro I had ever seen, and who I once saw block a shot by reaching up through the net, catching a jumper, and flipping it back – then professing astonishment and outrage as he was called for goaltending.

 

Those Spurs were fun. They ran a lot. Their defensive strategy called for them to hold you to two fewer points than they scored. They won a lot of games and looked like they had fun doing it. It was sure fun to watch them.

 

The current incarnation of the Spurs, the Spurs of the Tim Duncan era? Well, you have to admire what they’ve accomplished. They’re brilliantly coached, superbly disciplined, play excellent defense and exhibit remarkable poise. They’ve won three championships. Tim Duncan ranks among the greatest big men to ever play the game, Tony Parker is faster than perhaps anyone in the league except Leandro Barbosa and is a solid floor leader to boot, Bruce Bowen is a defensive demon, Manu Ginobili is “Mr. Intangible,” and on their bench, they have one of the best big-shot specialists ever to play in Robert Horry.

 

But I’d rather watch almost any other team play.

 

The Spurs are a methodical team that finds your weakness and exploits it efficiently, not spectacularly. Tim Duncan, for all his brilliance, makes highlight packages only when he gets thrown out of games for laughing – which only happens when he’s off the court. Tony Parker, of course, doesn’t need our love – he has Eva Longoria. Seriously, how do you root for Tony Parker? You root for the guy to GET Eva Longoria, not after he’s already done it – after that, you just wish someone would bonk him on the nose with their forehead during the critical stages of a playoff game (wait a minute…). Enough people have questioned Bruce Bowen’s defensive practices for me to look at him with a jaundiced eye every time someone he’s guarding misses a shot. Manu Ginobili flops more than Dick Fosbury (who?), and I keep expecting him to get off the bench to go into a game, only to fall over the end line…and have the referee call a foul on the opposing team (seriously – watch how many times he hits the deck during a game at the slightest contact). And Robert Horry has broken Suns fans’ hearts (and the hearts of every other team’s fans) too often for anyone to root for him other than his own immediate family. Besides, Suns fans will never forgive Horry for, during his short tenure as a Suns player, responding to a request from Head Coach Danny Ainge by whipping a towel in the coach’s face.

 

In fact, the only current Spur I kind of like is Michael Finley, and that’s just because he was once a Sun of good standing.

 

Of course, all of this is good-natured grumping and sour-graping until the Suns finally prove the Spurs no longer have their number. And right now, all the numbers are in their favor: The Spurs hold a 12-4 advantage over the Suns since Steve Nash rejoined Phoenix; The Suns are 3-4 all-time against the Spurs in playoff series, but only 1-4 in the last five series; the Spurs have those three championship banners in their rafters and the Suns have none; and most crucially, the Spurs lead the current playoff series, one game to nothing. The Spurs just win. Over and over and over again. You have to – HAVE to – hand it to them.

 

The Spurs are a team to admire – but the Suns are a team to love. Great players, great system, exciting plays, wonderful individual stories, the hope of the future of professional basketball play, and a franchise long overdue for the ultimate success. How could anyone outside the San Antonio area code NOT root for them? You see my point, right?

 

So do what I’m going to do. Paint your face purple tonight (or orange if you prefer). Comb your hair forward in your best Nashian ‘do. Cover your nose with sympathy bandages. And root, root, root for your Phoenix Suns to bring home Game 2 and win this thing in six. San Antonio’s been there, done that, and you have to appreciate them for it.

 

But now it’s our turn.

Marion Deserves Game Ball

No matter what Shawn Marion does he frequently gets overshadowed and underpraised in Suns’ wins, and more often than not is charged with contributory underachievement in Suns losses. And that’s not just my opinion. It’s his too.

 

But there was no denying him in this “must” win.

 

Although Amaré Stoudemire had 27 points and Steve Nash had 16 assists, while Marion had only five points and one assist, the superb shackle job he did on Tony Parker was the key to the Suns’ defense. And on a night when it took the Suns’ vaunted offensive almost three periods to even warm (it never got really hot), the defense was definitely the key to squaring the series.

 

Kurt Thomas also deserves high marks for his yeoman work on Tim Duncan (good call, Coach Mike), but just as it was inability to control Parker that cost the Suns Game 1, it was Marion’s ability to do so that got them Game 2.

 

Parker scored 32 points and had eights assists in Game 1 on Sunday, and even more importantly, his ability to pretty much go wherever he wanted and do whatever he wanted to seemed to take a lot of energy out of the Suns.

 

But Marion, the most versatile defender in the NBA no matter how the coaches and writers voted, was able to keep Parker from slashing to the basket, and also bother him enough outside to cool off his hot shooting hand. As a result, Tony P. managed only 13 points and three assists on Tuesday night, and never really was that much of a factor.

 

All in all, with Raja Bell helping throttle frequent Suns’ tormentor Manu Ginobili, and indeed just about everybody pitching in, this may have been one of the best defensive efforts in a playoff game ever by a team that’s not even supposed to be able to spell defense, let alone play it.

 

That’s never been true, of course. And if it had been last night the Suns would be heading to Texas down 0-2. When you only hit 26 percent of your shots in the first period and still are down only six you’ve got to be doing a lot right at the other end. (Actually, the Suns came within one 10th of a second of being down only four, but after a replay check officials ruled Parker had been fouled with .1 tick still on the clock, and Tony converted two free throws).

 

“I thought WE were supposed to be the defensive team,” lamented San Antonio coach Greg Popovich, “but they made us look like novices in that regard.”

 

Just so! And just as ironical as the best offensive team in the league beating the best defense team in the league with defense was the fact the Suns actually outworked and wore down the Spurs.

 

“We can play better on offense,” said D’Antoni. “Much better. But we were really good defensively, and it all started with Shawn and Kurt.”

 

When you get right down to it, this was precisely the kind of game (and against precisely the kind of team) the Suns weren’t supposed to be able to win (beat) because their highly entertaining style just wouldn’t work on the postseason stage.

 

While the standard spin at this point is that this is only one game, the margin of defeat is irrelevant, the Spurs got what they came for, etc, and thus the series now stands 1-to-1 in their favor. But I’m not buying it.

 

Oh, I buy the margin of defeat part. But I think the fact the Suns proved just how well they can play defense, and how well they adjusted at both ends of the court is very significant.

 

That’s why I like them even more to win the series now than I did before it started.

KT and LB, the Smiling Hustlers

Kurt Thomas was all smiles in the Suns’ locker room on Tuesday night, and I couldn’t help but smile for him myself.

 

Kurt Thomas recorded 12 points and four rebounds in the Suns’ Game 2 win.
(Jeramie McPeek/Suns�Photos)

 

More often that not this season, the veteran center would dress quietly in front of his cherry-wood cubicle, while next-door neighbor and low-post apprentice Amaré Stoudmire would be surrounded by reporters and cameras after games. But “Dirty” was high on the list of media targets following the Suns’ 20-point win in Game 2 of the Conference Semis, and for good reason.

 

After sitting out the Suns’ playoff run a year ago, and seeing just 18 minutes a game this regular season – his fewest per night in the last nine years – Thomas drew the long straw and the starting nod Tuesday, and took full advantage of the opportunity. In his 28 minutes and three seconds of court time, the 34-year-old scored 12 points, on 6-of-7 field goals, grabbed four boards and three steals.

 

“It was awesome,” he told me when I asked how it felt. “It was just great to go out there and contribute, to help the team out and do whatever we can, especially in the playoffs. That’s what you play for.”

 

The real reason Thomas got a chance to play, of course, was because of the defense Coach D’Antoni hoped he could provide. And, although he downplayed his defense Tim Duncan to just “decent,” Thomas definitely made the Spurs’ All-Star work hard, particularly in the fourth quarter when he missed three-of-four shots.

“I just try not to let him catch the ball, that’s the biggest thing,” Kurt said. “They pound the ball into him and he’s just a tremendous player. He really knows how to use his body, and he has great footwork, and a tremendous touch shooting the ball, especially the way he shoots it off the glass.

 

“But I definitely could do a better job. You have to realize, he still scored (29) points tonight. So I definitely have to break down the tape and make corrections from tonight. The key is to just make him work, so in the fourth quarter, hopefully, he’ll have tired legs and his shot will come up a little short.”

Now, the question on several reporters minds was does Kurt get tired, running up and down in the Suns’ up-tempo offense? Thomas just laughed.

 

“It’s fun when you get the opportunity to run up and down like that, so it definitely makes the game very exciting, instead of walking the ball up the floor,” he said. “I definitely enjoy it. It reminds me when I played in college, my senior year, and I led the nation in scoring and rebounding. We would just run up and down, just pushing the ball and pressing. That was college. We don’t really press that much here, but we’re trying to get as many offensive possessions as we can.”

Barbosa Deserving of Hustle Award

I had planned on writing a blog last game about Leandro Barbosa winning the 202007 Dan Majerle Hustle Award, one of my favorite annual honors. But after the disappointing loss – which saw a couple of late-game mistakes by LB – I decided to hold off.

The Blur was back up to speed in Game 2, however, and showed why he was deserving of the recognition with his all-out effort, especially during the second quarter. If you watched the game, you’ll remember the moment when he raced past Spurs guard Tony Parker and his own teammate, Stoudemire, to rescue a loose ball that was headed out of bounds. Then less than a minute later, he was scrapping with the Spurs and diving for another ball, which he came up with and fed Steve Nash for a quick lay-up. They were just two plays, but fired up the sold-out crowd.

“I think hustling is the key for the game,” he told me Sunday. “Whatever I have to do to win the game, I will do with all my heart.”

It’s that attitude, of course, that earned Leandro the fifth annual award, which was voted on by five equally-weighted groups: Suns fans, employees, coaches, players and “Thunder Dan” himself.

“LB’s been great this year,” said Majerle, who presented LB with a large silver trophy shaped like Dan’s retired No. 9. “He comes off the bench and gives them a spark, much like I did in my younger days of my career. So I’m happy for him. He plays extremely hard and has really worked on his game. I couldn’t be more pleased.”

The NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year couldn’t have been more pleased himself. I was with Suns VP of Basketball Operations David Griffin when he told the 25-year-old guard that he had won the award prior to Game 1. LB’s eyes, which were glued to game film in the players’ lounge at the time, grew almost as big as his trademark smile.

“Wow, thank you to all of them,” he said of the voters. “I’m very happy and I appreciate that. I always want to do good things for the Suns, so thank you. It was a surprise.

“Dan Majerle was very, very good player. I used to watch him when I was little kid back in Brazil. It’s big time, big time!”

Oh, Nellie…He Nose Sports Medicine!

Talk Radio. It can be informative and it can be ruthless. I sometimes kick myself for listening to some of the local shows because of all the senseless and ignorant vile that can be spewed by listeners, guests and even the hosts!

 

 

Suns head athletic trainer Aaron Nelson attempts to stop the bleeding.
(NBAE Photos)
 
Today’s hot topic was “Blood Gate ’2007″ or the “Nash Nose Affair” in Game 1 of the Conference Semifinals.
First let me say that I am close, personal friends with Aaron Nelson so I have a somewhat biased opinion of his professionalism and dedication. But what I saw from my seat just rows away from the bench in Game 1 only solidified and justified the lofty perch to which I hold Aaron. I have never been more proud of him. 
With national television cameras and 20,000 rabid fans in the arena watching his every move, his every attempt to somehow patch a bloodied Steve Nash together, Aaron Nelson impressively kept his cool and maintained his composure. Not once did he appear to panic or succumb to the pressure of the moment. Now mind you, he was fighting a losing battle. There was no time to send Nash to the lockeroom, where stitiching him up would have been the only reasonable way to stop the bleeding. If he does head back to the lockeroom, he is not around to hit that clutch 3-pointer or driving lay-in that kept the Suns in the game(the team also seemed to be fighting a losing battle at the time!). So give “Nellie” credit for at least those�five critical points! 
I was actually sitting with a good friend of mine, who happens to be an anesthesiologist and knows quite a bit about surgeries and bleeding. He pointed out that with Nash’s heart-rate going back up when he returned to the floor, it would immediately trigger more bloodflow and that’s exactly what happened. The bleeding erupted again, soaking the bandages and creating a terrible mess and now resulting in an unnecessary controversy as the fans and so-called “experts” are teeing-off on Aaron over the talk show airwaves.
I understand the fans’ passion for the team and their desire to see the Suns finally reach the pinnacle, an NBA championship. I also regretfully understand talk radio and its need for inflammatory topics and opinions as it evokes a reaction and calls from listeners. But get one thing straight: the Suns did not lose Game 1 because Aaron Nelson was unprepared or unqualified in that situation.
The Suns lost because Gregg Popovich manipulates a game better than any other coach in the league (working the refs and calling strategic time-outs). The Suns lost because Tony Parker has learned how to hit a jumper (and now the Suns must learn how to slow TP down — my call is for Raja to give him a dose of his physical D). The Suns lost because in the final�five minutes they took lower percentage shots than the Spurs(LB fires a tough�three vs Tim Duncan’s three-foot jump hook in the lane). The Suns lost the game because they were basically out-executed down the stretch.
These Spurs are a well-oiled machine that rarely breaks down late in games. The Suns will be wise to build an early lead and take that late into the 4th quarter which will force the Spurs to take quicker shots instead of the Suns.
I still say: Suns in 7. And when they march on to the Western Conference Finals against Golden State — in what will be the most entertaining series the league has EVER seen — this bloody mess will be long forgotten.

Suns vs. Spurs an Epic Battle

I don’t know about you, but I slept pretty good last night. In fact, I even had to stop my viewing of “Seven Samurai” prematurely because I was so ready to hit the hay.

Spurs forward Tim Duncan is a large, intimidating, serious presence.
(NBAE Photos)

A combination of Spiderman 3 midnight showings and night-after-night of watching the Mets beat the Diamondbacks played a factor, sure. But in large part, my full night of sleep had to do with how good I’m now feeling about this Western Conference Semifinals series. In fact, if anything, I’m feeling even more confident than I was before the series began.

You look at everything that went against the Phoenix Suns and you’ve got to be amazed they were even in this ballgame. Amaré Stoudemire struggles, shooting just 6-for-19 and still finds a way to finish with 20 points and 18 rebounds. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker shoot lights out and finish with 33 and 32 respectively. The Spurs as a whole seemed to come up with every loose ball and a number of critical rebounds which led to second and sometimes third-chance opportunities. And finally you’ve got Steve Nash who found himself finishing a game without a double-double for the first time this postseason – and, oh yeah, missing the most crucial moments of the ballgame with a busted nose.

Everything seemed to be working against the Suns in Game 1 and still the game was undecided with just seconds to go. You’ve got to expect Stoudemire to get better as the series improves. You’ve got to expect Mike D’Antoni to find ways to slow down Duncan and Parker. You’ve got to believe Duncan and Parker will come back to Earth and are not each going to each average 30 points per game for the entire series. And you’ve got to expect Nash to be able to keep his face in one piece. Would just one of those things happened on Sunday, the Suns would find themselves up 1-0 in this series rather than the other way around.

I had the opportunity to take in both Suns practice and Spurs practice today, definitely a cinematic-like experience. The juxtaposition between these two well-run ball clubs is just amazing. The Suns are loose, friendly with the media – even referring to some members by name. Watching the Spurs with their Head Coach Gregg Popovich patrolling the court… well let’s just say the 1980 Russian hockey team came to mind. These guys are the perfect antagonists, I mean, they even wear black. You talk about a series of good versus evil, had Spiderman 3 had half the intrigue as this match up, it probably would’ve made for a decent movie.

Popovich is the no-nonsense coach, somebody you don’t want to ask the wrong question to. D’Antoni meanwhile is accessible and easy-going, there isn’t anybody in the world who doesn’t like him.

Nash is personable, the kind of guy who would help a little old lady across the street – a Luke Skywalker or Peter Parker if you will. He’s also got a lot better sense of humor then most people know. Case in point was during his post-game press conference following Game 1. Walking away from the podium after answering questions, Suns Vice President of Basketball Communications Julie Fie informed the media that Nash had required a total of six stitches. Nash – exiting the room – shouted back towards Julie, “Tell them it was 17.” Keep in mind this was after a loss, you can only imagine the good times following a victory.

Duncan on the other hand is large and intimidating, a guy not known as a jokester. In fact, you’d have a better chance of seeing Russell Crowe doing standup than you would the former league MVP.

There are lots of good guys on this team. Michael Finley – my favorite Sun growing up – has been a standup guy whether in Phoenix, Dallas or Houston. Manu Ginobili is also a personable guy who at times is hard to dislike. But despite all that, the San Antonio Spurs are in my eyes, the Evil Empire of the NBA… Only instead of Storm Troopers and Death Stars they’ve got All-Stars and fancy iced-out rings.

The bottom line is that playoff series are about adjusting, and after watching Game 1 it doesn’t take a genius to realize these two teams aren’t that far off. With that being the case, I think we’re in for a very long series ahead of us. One in which the good guys will hopefully find themselves on the winning end of.

Game 1 Loss Does Not Change Big Picture

Game 1s seldom change the big picture in as playoff series, and this one is no exception.

Amaré Stoudemire pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds on Sunday night.� (NBAE Photos)

The expectation before this Western Conference semifinal match up started was that it would be your basic titanic struggle between two talented teams so evenly matched that a couple of shots here and a couple of calls there would make the difference in each game..

And that’s the way Game 1 went down, and that’s the way the series still shapes up.

Alas, in Game 1 the couple of shots and the couple of calls went a little more there than here, and thus the home court advantage has been shipped back to San Antonio. But historically that doesn’t really become a significant factor until Game Seven anyway, so there’ll be ample time for the Suns to get it returned to sender before then.

What this game DID do was reinforce the belief that while Steve Nash apparently won’t win this year’s MVP election, he is far and away the most valuable player in the league. So valuable that it’s not too much of a stretch to think the Suns might very well have pulled out a win had he not been forced to the sidelines by the blood rule with 54 seconds to play.

He not only makes the league’s best offense run, but has an uncanny ability to hit huge shots, like the three-pointer that tied the game at 2:23 and the two-pointer that brought the Suns that cut a four-point deficit in half at 1:13. And Spurs’ coach Greg Popovich readily acknowledged that his loss was San Antonio’s gain.

This is not to take anything away from the Spurs, who got a super performance from their own magnificent point guard, Tony Parker (32 points, 8 assists), and an overpowering one from their All Pro center, Tim Duncan (33 points, 16 rebounds). I would never put an asterisk next to win of their wins. You have to admire their execution and poise.

As for the Suns, given that Amaré Stoudemire was in early foul trouble and hit only 6 of 19 shots, it is a tribute to Nash and their other weapons that they were right there in the final minute.

Actually, in some ways Amaré’s third foul near the end of the first half may have been even more damaging than Nash’s injury near the end of the fourth period. The Suns were up by six when he and Duncan went down in a heap. It looked to me like Duncan had pulled Amaré down on top of him (an old John Havlicek trick) but that’s not the way it looked to the officials.

The call not only slapped the handcuffs on Amaré’s defense the rest of the night (which by the way had held Duncan without a field goal in the first period), but halted the Suns in mid momentum and deprived them of any chance to build on their lead. As it was, it was down to two at halftime, and shrunk to one when assistant coach Marc Iavaroni was hit with a technical before the start of the third period.

But as the players say, it is what it is, and you can file the call in the “we’ll never know that would have happened if …” file along with Nash’s bleeding episode.

Amaré, by the way, still had 20 points and 13 rebounds. And you have to think that if the Suns can come this close without the best of him you really have to like their chances the rest of the way. At least I do.

One of the things that kept this game so close, by the way, was that San Antonio’s 14-plus rebound edge was offset by the Suns’ plus-8 turnover edge. And you have to give the Suns’ defense some credit for the 15 San Antonio turnovers leading to 16 points.

The bottom line: I still like the Suns in more than five but less than seven.

A Classic in the Making

Many times we in the media can get carried away in our preview of a game or series that’s to be played. But, this year’s series between the Suns and Spurs warrants all the attention we can give it. The second round meeting between these two teams will be a war!!

The Suns and Spurs tip off the Western Conference Semifinals on Sunday afternoon at US Airways Center (12:30 p.m., ABC).�� (NBAE Photos)

Bill Walton said this week that the winner of this series will win it all! With the number one seed, Dallas eliminated, it does appear that could be the case. However, nobody wants to play the Warriors right now!! The Suns have to overcome a lot of history to get by the Spurs.

Since Mike D’Antoni took over, the Suns have won only 4 of 18 meetings. We all know how good the “Big Fundamental” Tim Duncan is, (he averaged 20.2 pts and 10.6 rebounds vs.. Denver) carving up the Nuggets with his passing out of the double teams.

Gregg Popovich called him a wonderful quarterback as Denver went after him physically. We realize the speed at which Tony Parker plays, second only to Leandro Barbosa, and are braced for the fanatic play of Manu Ginobili.

The Spurs have their version of Shawn Marion defensively in Bruce Bowen, but what has really thrown this series into such a potential epic is the play of two veterans. Through the years 36 year old Robert Horry has been a post-season phenomenon. He leads all active players with six NBA titles. He has appeared in the playoffs all 14 NBA seasons, making big shot after big shot. He buried the Nuggets with a 3-pointer in game #4 with 30 seconds left.

“Big Shot Rob”, rests up for the post-season and be assured he will find a way to impact this series. The other veteran, who created havoc in the first round, was Michael Finley. The two-time all-star was on fire! In the deciding game five against Denver, the former Sun hit 8 shots behind the line. He registered 19 three point hits the 3rd most ever in a five game series.

Having said all that, Amaré Stoudemire should offset all that. Two seasons ago STAT scored a playoff career-high 42 points in game five of the Western Conference Finals vs. the Spurs. Even Tim Duncan was impressed.

Amaré makes the Suns such an elite team, and if he can avoid early foul trouble, look out! Nash will be Nash, Bell will be Bell and Barbosa will be Superman. Without beating a dead horse, I wonder how the series will be officiated?

The Spurs are the biggest complainers in the league, and now that Joey Crawford has been banished, who can hold Duncan accountable??

As Suns vice president of basketball operations, David Griffin, put it, “We’re going to find out if we’ve really taken a step forward” Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich has said the Suns have never beaten them when it matters. Well it matters, and the Suns plan to overcome some history in what will be a classic!

Stoudemire Key to Semifinals

“Give me three reasons why the Suns will beat the Spurs,” my hooked-on-hoops neighbor demanded.

“Amare Stoudemire, Amare Stoudemire, Amare Stoudemire,” I replied.

Amaré Stoudemire is the key to the Suns advancing to the Western Conference Finals for�a third straight year.
(NBAE Photos)

“Okay,” he pressed on. “Now give me three reasons why they won’t”

“Amaré Stoudemire, Amaré Stoudemire, Amaré Stoudemire,” I replied.

If you’re reading between the lines here you’ve probably guessed the view here is that Amaré is the key to the series.

Don’t misunderstand. Steve Nash is still The Straw (i.e. —the one that stirs the drink) and an MVP for the ages, if apparently not this year.

But for me, given who the Spurs are and what they hang their hat on, Amaré will be The Difference. The one Sun, if you will, for whom the Spurs really have no physical answer for. They didn’t in 2005 playoffs, when he averaged 37 points a game against them in the playoffs and they still don’t.

If he stays out of foul trouble and the Suns don’t forget about him on offense (as they were prone to do at times during the regular season) the Suns figure to clear the biggest remaining hurdle between them and The Prize.

If he doesn’t . . .

And it’s not just his offense. Indeed, his emergence as a force on the boards and a looming inside presence as a help defender are the two biggest reasons this Suns team better than the first two in the Nash era (besides better health and Leandro Barbosa, of course).

Many of the cognoscenti favor the Spurs in this classic match-up between a great defense and a great offense, noting, among other things, San Antonio’s 17-4 edge in the last 21 meetings between the teams. They also point out that, even with Amaré scoring 37 points a game in that 2005 series the Spurs took the Suns out in five games.

But those Spurs are not quite as good as these Spurs, whereas these Suns, as noted, are significantly a bit better than those Suns.

And the very fact so many do favor the Spurs is an intangible plus for a franchise which has always done better as an underdog than a favorite. Flying under the national radar has long been the Suns’ best altitude.

The one thing I do see eye to eye with the cognoscenti is that the team that wins this series will go on to win the title. Well, almost eye to eye. I think the Suns would be a bit more a lock to do so than the Spurs.

The bottom line: Suns in more than five but less than seven.