Just cut me Mick.
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But isn’t that the way it’s being spun? The media is pumping up the first-round duel as a sure-to-be slugfest between a popular team and another that is perceived as getting away with murder last season. Ok, maybe just assault.

While every Suns fans thinks of the Spurs as the team that first bloodied and then hip-checked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table, they also get away with a lot because they are pressuring opponents from the tip-off. 

Referees are going to give lenience to a team that starts the game in your face, more than one that kicks their defense into high-gear a quarter into action. The Spurs players are all aware of this bias by officials and that’s why they get credit for playing more physical down the stretch of games — while other teams play softer.

Coach Mike D’Antoni knows this more than anyone. When asked if he thought the Spurs were dirty, he responded by stating that they had players that were much better at gamesmanship.

“I don’t think they sit down and think about hip-checking a guy with 1.8 seconds left and have guys come off the bench to get thrown out,” D’Antoni said. “I don’t think their definition of gamesmanship is different from ours, they have players that have the ability to be better at it. If we had (Manu) Ginobili on our team, we’d love it.”

It’s true. If Grant Hill was able to get the calls Ginobili does when he pretends to get snagged going over the high pick and roll, Suns fans would be ecstatic. Or if Amaré Stoudemire was able to get Tim Duncan into foul trouble like Duncan has been able to do to him, the media would be praising Stoudemire for his wits as well as his athleticism. 

In fact, Stoudemire is a player that could learn the most from the Spurs. Often STAT ends up in foul trouble because he’s scared of getting into foul trouble. By shying away from contact, he gets whistled for ticky-tack fouls, all while getting frustrated beyond belief. Unfortunately, fouls often go against the better-intentioned player, and reward the more aggressive player. But if STAT makes his presence felt early, the refs will maintain their looseness with him later. With Shaq protecting his back, it’s even more incentive for him to be the aggressor.

And don’t underestimate the presence of having a 325-pound paint-plugger in the lane. If you are a 165-pound Tony Parker, you are thinking twice about driving to the hoop and taking punishment from “The Big Aristotle.” And if you are a Spurs big man, you are going to very mindful in the fouls you give to Steve Nash or Leandro Barbosa. Especially when you know the favor could be returned on the other end. It’s like having a national missle program. You don’t ever plan on using it, but everyone else is going to leave you alone because they know you have it.

One guy who won’t be intimidated in this series is Nash.


Can I get mustard with that Nash sandwich?
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

“Having grown up playing hockey and rugby, basketball is nothing in terms of its physicality,” he said. “Even in soccer as a 12-year old there was always an opponent on the other team that would try to break your leg every game. You just become immune to that kind of thing.”

With the likelihood of being guarded by Bruce Bowen, Nash stated that he enjoys playing against him. When asked specifically about whether Bowen was dirty or aggressive, he said that the Spurs guard was both, but that he respected that.

“I think it’s good,” he said. “He does what he has to do to make himself effective.”

Nash maintains that the league has evolved and that the officials have cleaned up a lot of the dirty play. He doesn’t believe that this series will be any dirtier than any other.

But he also left room for doubt by saying, “You never know how it’s going to be. Boys will be boys and tempers flare. It’s emotional.”

So it will be interesting to see how the officials will call this series. Will it be tight? Or will they let them play a little? I would wager that the first few games will be called tight, at least in the beginning, just to make sure there aren’t any shenanigans. At the end of the day, the refs don’t want the stars to be on the bench in the closing minutes anymore than anyone else.

Does that mean there won’t be some scuffling or a cheap shot or two being thrown? I would never say that. After all, it’s the playoffs, and guys are going to try to strike fear into one another.

Just think back to the Lakers-Celtics Finals matchups of the 1980’s. People think of class acts like Larry Bird, Kareem and Magic Johnson. Nearly every game erupted into a bench-clearing brawl, but these guys are remembered as some of the finest human beings to ever lace them up.

I expect the same from this series. The competition will be fierce, and the will to win will be strong, but after last season, I can’t imagine the referees becoming the difference in this series again.

But who knows? Maybe the Suns will get robbed quicker than you can say Tim Donaghy? Or maybe the Suns have learned their lesson and owner Robert Sarver will enlist the help of referee Joey Crawford so he can eject Duncan at a moment’s notice?

One thing is for sure. If Robert Horry should pull an encore performance, D’Antoni’s guys will be ready.

“We’ve got seat belts on the bench, and we are ready to go,” he said smiling.

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