Duncan Dominates, Spurs Eliminate SunsTim Duncan literally eclipsed the Suns in the paint with 24 points, 13 rebounds and nine blocked shots (a career-high and franchise playoff record) as the Spurs advanced to the Western Conference Finals with a 114-106 victory. The Spurs led by as many as 20 in the fourth quarter before a furious but ultimately futile run made the score more respectable. Manu Ginobili had 33 points, a career-high 11 rebounds, six assists and four steals, shooting 11-17 from the field. Tony Parker added 30 points and five assists but shot just 11-27. Amare Stoudemire led the Suns with 38 points and 12 rebounds. Steve Nash finished with 18 points and 14 assists.
Parker (11 points) and Stoudemire (eight points) got off to fast starts and the score was tied at 23 after the first quarter. Duncan's early impact was mainly felt at the defensive end; he blocked five shots in the first quarter, making it clear that the Suns would get no easy points in the paint. Neither team led by more than three points during the second quarter, with the Spurs taking a 53-51 advantage into halftime. Duncan scored 13 points in the second quarter and finished the first half with 15 points, eight rebounds and six blocked shots. He shot 7-12 from the field. Parker led all scorers with 21 points, while Stoudemire had 17 points, seven rebounds and three blocks but he shot just 6-15 from the field.
The Suns took their last lead of the game at the 6:49 mark of the third quarter after a Shawn Marion tip-in. Shortly after that, ESPN came back from a commercial break and ran a sound bite of Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni talking about the series. D'Antoni asserted that his team is "more talented" than San Antonio and "just as mentally tough." The timing of those words could not be more exquisitely ironic: Bruce Bowen and Ginobili promptly hit back to back three pointers to give the Spurs their largest lead yet, 69-61. By the end of the quarter, the "more talented" and "just as mentally tough" Suns trailed 81-67 and their two-time MVP Nash had scored exactly three points.
The Spurs led 92-72 with 9:09 left in the fourth quarter after another Ginobili jumper. Nash scored the Suns' next 10 points--and they still trailed by 16 at the 6:20 mark. A Nash jumper finally got the margin under 10 with 3:42 to go (99-90) but neither team scored in the next 1:09. The Suns crawled to within 101-94 with 2:01 left but the Spurs made enough field goals and free throws down the stretch to keep them at bay.
Nash ended up with decent numbers, mainly thanks to his scoring explosion after the game was essentially out of reach, but he was not even the best guard on the court--that would be Ginobili--let alone the best player, which was Tim Duncan. No doubt we will hear that this series was "tainted" by the suspensions of Stoudemire and Boris Diaw (who had one point in Game Six) but the Suns led for most of Game Five even without Stoudemire and Diaw and lost convincingly in Game Six with their full complement of players; anyone who uses the word "tainted" to describe the result of this series simply did not pay attention to the games. In fact, this game and this series followed the same blueprint that San Antonio used to beat Phoenix 4-1 in the 2005 playoffs: stay tight on the three point shooters, contain Nash's penetration and live with whatever Stoudemire scores. The Spurs won the lowest scoring game of the series and the highest scoring game of the series, proving that they could beat the Suns at any tempo. They strolled into Phoenix and grabbed homecourt advantage after Game One. Duncan's dominance caused the Suns to change their starting lineup and Parker's speed forced the Suns to switch Nash on to Bowen and Marion on to Parker. The real significance of Game Four is not Horry's foul and the aftermath but the fact that the Spurs dominated for 46 minutes but ended up blowing a double digit fourth quarter lead for the first time in 28 playoff games and just the third time in 58 such postseason games during Duncan's career; if not for that lapse, the Spurs would probably have won in five games just like they did in 2005. Consider what happened in Game Six: the Suns had their full team, the Spurs still did not have Horry and the Spurs built an even bigger lead than they did in Game Four--and this time they held on to it.
For three seasons we have heard about Nash's greatness, which is supposed to consist mainly of his ability to make his teammates better. His coach publicly stated, more than once, that the Suns are more talented than the Spurs. Yet, Nash failed once again to lead his team to the NBA Finals--despite owning homecourt advantage and being paired with an All-NBA First Team player (Stoudemire), an All-Star/Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Marion), the Sixth Man of the Year (Leandro Barbosa) and a member of the All-Defensive First Team (Raja Bell). Sure, Nash had 14 assists in Game Six but--other than Stoudemire, who is clearly an explosive talent who would thrive on any team--who exactly did he "make better" in the biggest game of the year for the Suns? Marion shot 5-12, Barbosa shot 5-15, Diaw shot 0-1 and Bell shot 5-9. If Nash in fact "made everyone better" during the past three regular seasons and if the Suns in fact are "more talented" than the Spurs than why did this series not even make it to a seventh game? If Kobe Bryant is denied MVP honors for not leading the Lakers to 50 wins and Dirk Nowitzki is blasted for going out in the first round after a 67 win season then how can Nash escape any criticism when his team lasts exactly one round longer than their teams did despite enjoying homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs (after Dallas' elimination) and despite playing alongside so many talented players? If he has been "making them better" all along and deserves two MVPs as a reward for that then he has to be criticized for not making them better year after year in the playoffs.
The reality, of course, is that Nash is an excellent player but he is not and never has been the best player in the NBA. That is why teams led by Duncan and Nowitzki have knocked his Suns out of the playoffs each of the past three seasons--and why Kobe Bryant almost pulled off the same thing in 2006 with so much less help around him than Nash has that it is comical to suggest that Nash is better than Bryant; put Bryant on the Suns for this series and Ginobili would no longer be the best guard on the court and the Suns would be better than they are now both offensively and defensively. Every single writer and commentator who has been saying for the past two weeks that he would switch his MVP vote this year from Nowitzki to Nash because of what happened in the first round absolutely must follow that reasoning to its logical conclusion and publicly endorse Duncan as this year's MVP; you simply cannot bash Nowitzki for losing in the first round and then completely ignore that Nash's team lost in the second round despite having homecourt advantage.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 AM