Spurs Outexecute Suns Down the StretchThe season is young but the Phoenix Suns' propensity for blowing big leads is getting old in a hurry for Coach Mike D'Antoni. The San Antonio Spurs overcame a nine point fourth quarter deficit and beat the Suns in overtime, 111-106. The Suns dropped to 1-4 and they have squandered leads of at least nine points in each of their losses. Tony Parker had 29 points and six assists, Tim Duncan produced 26 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots and Fabricio Oberto shot 11-11 from the field, scoring 22 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, the first double-double of his NBA career. In case you are wondering, the 11-11 field goal shooting is not a record; as ESPN's Mike Breen and Hubie Brown pointed out, the record for most field goals without a miss in one game is 18, by Wilt Chamberlain; the Big Dipper also holds down spots two and three with games of 16-16 and 15-15. Steve Nash and Raja Bell led the Suns with 20 points each. Nash also had 11 assists. Amare Stoudemire was in the starting lineup for the first time this season. He finished with 16 points and six rebounds while shooting 8-11 from the field. Stoudemire had several nice dunks and looked better than he has since his microfracture surgery but he also fouled out after playing only 15 minutes.
Right after the game started, Hubie Brown explained the reasons for the Suns' slow start this year: rebounding, defense and some chemistry issues working new players into Coach D'Antoni's system. Stoudemire made one of the more athletic plays that he has made during his comeback when Nash fed him for a monster two hand dunk that tied the score at 10 early in the first quarter. Stoudemire played aggressively in the early going but also tired quickly, asking out of the game midway through the period. Phoenix led 25-21 at the end of the quarter.
Stoudemire returned to action at the 5:49 mark in the second quarter with the Suns leading 36-32. He hit an off balance turnaround fadeaway over Oberto that Brown described as a "so help me God" shot; Brown suggested that Stoudemire should use his size and strength to go to the basket and not rely on such a low percentage attempt. The next time down the court, Stoudemire faced up Duncan and drove to the basket, but he missed the layup. A couple minutes later, Nash delivered a sweet left handed feed and Stoudemire delivered another monster dunk. Not long after that, Stoudemire committed his second foul while trying to guard Duncan. The Suns led 43-37 at this point and Brown pointed out what he termed an amazing statistic: the Suns had scored 30 of their 43 points in the paint but had yet to attempt a free throw. That soon changed, as Nash fed a trailing Stoudemire, who made a layup and drew a foul; he missed the free throw.
Stoudemire was hit with his third foul at the 1:48 mark but D'Antoni left him in the game. Smartly, the Spurs went right at him and Duncan met very little resistance, scoring easily in the post as Stoudemire ceded ground so as not to be whistled again. Stoudemire countered with a jump shot and then answered a Parker drive with a layup of his own. When D'Antoni took Stoudemire out with less than 30 seconds left he already had 14 points on 7-10 shooting. A late Brent Barry three pointer gave the Spurs a 50-49 halftime lead. Duncan had 13 first half points and Parker had 12, picking up the slack for Manu Ginobili (three points, 1-7 field goal shooting). The Spurs had trailed by as much as eight.
Stoudemire quickly picked up his fourth foul and had to go back to the bench but the Suns ran off nine straight points to take a 58-50 lead barely two minutes into the third quarter. The Spurs trimmed the margin to 71-68 before Stoudemire returned to action. He posted up Oberto and scored but had to go back to the bench at the 1:57 mark after fouling Barry on a drive. Phoenix led 75-70 at the end of the third quarter.
Ginobili scored seven points in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, hitting five straight free throws--including three after he was fouled in the act of shooting a three pointer. Phoenix still clung to an 81-79 lead. After Bell's three pointer at the 8:06 mark put the Suns up 86-79, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich signaled for the Spurs to run "power 5 down." Oberto received the ball at the top of the key, the three perimeter players cleared out the back side and Oberto tossed the ball to Duncan, who promptly wheeled and scored on Kurt Thomas. That sequence seemed to be a pretty good momentum shifter but the Suns kept pushing the ball and with 5:29 to go Nash hit a three pointer to extend the lead to nine, 91-82. Barry immediately answered with a three pointer.
Stoudemire entered the game with 4:56 left but barely half a minute later he fouled out at the end of a bizarre sequence of events. Barry launched a jumper that did not hit the rim but Stoudemire secured the rebound before the shot clock buzzer could go off. Since he had possession, there was no shot clock violation. Parker stripped the ball from Stoudemire, who fouled him. Parker's two free throws cut the Phoenix lead to 93-87 and after a Phoenix miss he hit a teardrop to close the gap to 93-89. The Spurs kept chipping away and with 39.1 seconds left Parker converted a three point play to put the Spurs up 98-97. Leandro Barbosa was then called for a charge, although replays showed that Bruce Bowen had grabbed his arm earlier on the drive. With 10.8 seconds left, the Spurs seemed to put the game on ice when Ginobili passed to Oberto who deftly fed Duncan for a layup and a 101-97 lead. The Suns called timeout and executed a great inbounds play, Bell passing to Shawn Marion who passed right back to Bell for a three pointer from the left baseline. Duncan then missed two free throws. On the Suns' final possession, Bell broke free for a layup, forcing Oberto to foul him with 1.5 seconds left. Bell split the free throws and the game went to overtime after the Spurs missed a half court heave at the buzzer.
Tim Duncan versus Kevin Garnett is a fashionable debate (or at least it used to be--Garnett's supporters seem to be quieter now), but the overtime session provided a prime example of why Duncan is more valuable than Garnett. Scottie Pippen pointed out Garnett's deficiencies in some comments that he made less than a year ago: "He really set the tone for self-destruction. He's very productive but unproductive. He gets you all the stats you want, but at the end of the day his points don't have an impact on [winning] the game. He plays with a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm, but in the last five minutes of the game he ain't the same player as in the first five." The technical reason for Garnett's lack of production in those situations is that he does not have a great back to the basket, low post game. Duncan, on the other hand, has a face-up game, a driving game and a back to the basket game. He completely dominated the overtime with his ability to post up. When the Suns double teamed him, he passed the ball back out and the quick ball rotation led to a wide open Bruce Bowen jump shot: 103-101 Spurs. Nash and Parker each hit jumpers and on the next possession Duncan was once again doubled on the post; this time he fired a great pass to Oberto, whose layup made the score 107-103 Spurs. Next time, the Suns did not double and Duncan put Kurt Thomas in what Kevin McHale used to call the "torture chamber": fake to the middle, drop step and layup off of the glass--109-103 Spurs. After Nash missed a jumper, Parker used a Duncan screen to get open for a running jumper. Bell hit a three pointer to close out the scoring.
The Suns simply had no answer for Duncan's ability to operate out of the low post--when they single covered him he scored at will and when they doubled him he picked them apart with great passing. This is not a new story; it is not an accident that Duncan's teams have won three titles and are perennially at or near the top of the regular season standings. Much is made of the playoff series two years ago when Stoudemire averaged 37 ppg versus Duncan and the Spurs but Duncan was very productive as well--and his team won the series four games to one.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:45 AM