Amare Stoudemire and the Suns nearly pulled out a win against the Spurs but had some problems down the stretch.

(NBAE Photos)

I come not to bury the Evil Empire West but to praise it. You’ve got to hand it to the Spurs. The defending champions came in here reeling from three straight losses and 11 in their last 21 games, were without the mainspring of their offense, Tony Parker, and minus a key sharpshooter off the bench (Brent Barry). They were also facing one of the hottest teams in the NBA in a city that loves to loathe them. Oh, and they also had an uncharacteristic amount of trouble hanging onto the ball, especially early on.

And, as might be expected given all of the above, they trailed almost all the way, once by as many as 14 points. But they hung in there, made the big shots big defensive plays in the last 75 seconds and walked of with an 84-81 victory.

If you have a feeling you’ve seen this movie before it was because the rhythm of the game was painfully similar to the loss to the Spurs in Game Five of the NBA playoffs. The penalty-depleted Suns, it will be recalled, led much of the way in that one only to have it slip away from them in the closing moments.

This was a fiercely contested but not particularly well played game. Both teams had trouble shooting, and neither one was ever able to establish the things it likes to establish on a consistent basis.

The irony is that the allegedly “No ‘D’ Suns” had a great defensive plan and executed it extremely well, clamping aggressive and timely double-teams on Tim Duncan and rotating well off those doubles. But the Spurs, who like to think they pioneered defense in the West, pretty much did likewise to the Suns —which is why both teams hit ascattershot 38 percent from the field.

To show you just what kind of a night it was, the play that drew the biggest roar from the crowd was a spectacular Amare Stoudemire block of a Duncan shot. How spectacular was it? Well, it was one of those rare moments when a crowd ignored the game for a few seconds to give Amare a standing ovation. Alas, Amare, who had two fouls before the game was three minutes old, missed three free throws in the closing minutes, one of which would have tied the game in the closing seconds.

The Empire’s villain this night (surprise, surprise) was Manu Ginobili. Booed almost every time he touched the ball, and blanked in the first half, he scored 19 points in the second half, including 11 in the last eight minutes, and came up with two rebounds and a critical steal at crunch time. (The crowd leveled a double boo blast at the flop-prone Spur when he stretched out on the floor at one point like he’d been hit by a four iron instead of brushed by a forearm.).

Shawn Marion led all scorers with 21 points, but played only half of the fourth period and managed only one rebound. And Steve Nash, normally one of the deadliest shooters on the planet, missed 12 of his shots and was 2 for 9 on treys.

The bottom line: One shouldn’t read too much into this game, but one must concede that the Spurs act like they think they have the Suns’ number, and the Suns don’t seem entirely sure the Spurs are all that wrong.

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