Suns Fight Back, Even Series--But Will All Hands Be on Deck for Game Five?Phoenix battled back from an 11 point fourth quarter deficit to beat San Antonio 104-98 and even their series at 2-2--but the lasting memory from this game may very well not be the epic on court duel between two excellent teams but rather a late game flagrant foul and the possible repercussions from what happened after that play. The Suns led 100-97 when Manu Ginobili missed a layup. Leandro Barbosa grabbed the rebound and passed the ball to Steve Nash. With less than 24 seconds left, the Spurs clearly had to foul but instead of doing the customary grab and hold, Spurs forward Robert Horry delivered a forearm shiver to Nash's chest, sending the Suns guard sprawling into the scorer's table. Nash lay motionless for a beat before jumping up to confront Horry, who was already squared off with Raja Bell. The referees ejected Horry for a flagrant two foul and you can rest assured that he will not be in uniform for Game Five. Bell received a technical foul--but perhaps the most significant action happened in the vicinity of the Suns' bench, where Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw took several steps on to the court before being restrained by Suns' officials. That is a strict no-no in the NBA; anyone who leaves the bench area when there is an altercation is subject to an automatic one game suspension. Would the NBA really do that in the middle of a hotly contested playoff series? Absolutely; in 1997, Patrick Ewing wandered a few steps away from the Knicks' bench during one of the many Knicks-Heat rumbles and the NBA suspended him for Game Six and the Knicks lost that game (and then lost the series in seven games).
On TNT's Inside the NBA, Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and guest Shaquille O'Neal discussed the play and the possibility that Stoudemire and Diaw will be suspended. Barkley mentioned that he was once suspended for taking even fewer steps on to the court than Stoudemire did. He added that he didn't think that was right and that he hopes that Stoudemire won't be suspended. The funny thing is that Barkley repeated several times that he got suspended for doing even less, so if he really does not want Stoudemire to be suspended I'm not sure if his comments actually helped Stoudemire very much. Barkley thinks that the rule is a bad rule and that the NBA should make an exception in this case. Smith rightly said that if the NBA does not suspend Stoudemire then it will have to do away with this rule because it could never again suspend someone in a similar situation. Barkley said that it would not be fair for the Suns to perhaps lose two starters due to an incident that was instigated by the Spurs but O'Neal summed the whole thing up best with two quotes: "If you cross the line, you lose your behind" and "Life's not fair."
I think that the rule is a good one and I have no sympathy for anyone who gets suspended for violating it. The NBA wants to curb on court violence and fighting; those kind of situations are escalated when players come running in from each bench. There are five players from each team on the court, plus three referees. Coaches can also come on to the court to restore order. It is not necessary for anyone else to intervene. Everybody knows the rule and no one has to worry that he will be considered a wimp for not coming on to the court because the NBA has been consistent about suspending anyone who does that. Kenny Smith mentioned that Jalen Rose and several other Suns did not violate the rule; Barkley said that that was because they were role players who were not as emotionally involved in the game as players who actually had played. That might be, but since the NBA has instituted a regimen that includes flagrant fouls, suspensions for blows to the head and prevention of players leaving the bench during altercations there has been a reduction in fighting; maybe the NHL thinks that unregulated mayhem is good for business but since their games are on a network that no one can find and currently get ratings slightly above that of a test pattern no one much cares about the NHL's way of doing things. Horry should be out one game (or two) and Stoudemire, Diaw and anyone else from either team who left the bench area should be suspended for a game as well.
The saddest thing about all the late game histrionics is that they will ultimately overshadow a tremendous game that included an impressive comeback by the Suns. Phoenix jumped out to an early 18-10 lead but San Antonio, applying Coach Gregg Popovich's philosophy of not being in a hurry to win, chipped away and closed to within 24-22 by the end of the first quarter. By halftime the Spurs led 45-40 and everything seemed to be pointing toward a San Antonio win: the Suns shot just 43% from the field in the first half, including 1-7 from three point range as the Spurs continued to not let Phoenix get open looks from beyond the arc. The Spurs' lead fluctuated from between 5 and 11 during the third quarter and stood at 80-72 going into the final period. It seemed that while San Antonio could not completely put Phoenix away that the Suns also did not have quite enough to get over the hump. TNT's Steve Kerr mentioned that this game could prove to be a defining moment for the Suns, either getting them right back in the series or all but sealing their fate.
The Spurs pushed the lead to 83-72 early in the fourth quarter and were ahead 85-75 with 8:55 left when Tim Duncan got his fourth foul and went to the bench. Within a minute the score was 85-80 and Popovich was forced to put Duncan back in the game. A couple Michael Finley three pointers held the Suns at bay and then four Tony Parker free throws gave the Spurs a 95-88 lead at the 3:58 mark. The Suns scored twice to get within 95-92 but Duncan's putback with just 2:22 left made the score 97-92 Spurs. That turned out to be the Spurs' last field goal of the game. Meanwhile, the Suns scored on their next four possessions--including a Nash jumper and two field goals assisted by Nash--to take a 100-97 lead. Then came Ginobili's miss and Horry's fateful flagrant foul.
How unusual is it for the Spurs to lose after having an 11 point fourth quarter lead? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Spurs had been 55-2 during Duncan's playoff career in such games and had won 27 straight. That means the Suns either deserve a lot of credit for having the grit and skill to win after facing such a deficit or they were lucky to escape with a road win after being outplayed for most of the first 46 minutes or so. The reality is that both statements have some degree of truth to them; the Suns seized an opportunity but they also got some help from the Spurs.
Nash finished with 24 points on 8-12 shooting, adding 15 assists and eight turnovers. He had two turnovers during the stretch when the Spurs pushed the lead from 91-88 to 95-88 but made up for those miscues with some incredible passes in the game's last two minutes. Stoudemire had 26 points and nine rebounds. Tony Parker led the Spurs with 23 points and seven assists, adding six rebounds. He also had five turnovers; though there were not a ton of turnovers in this game, most of them were committed by the star players from both teams. Duncan had 21 points, 11 rebounds, three blocked shots and six turnovers. Manu Ginobili had an awful shooting performance--3-14--that was somewhat offset by Finley's 17 points.
There is no doubt that this frenetic finish will only reinforce some people's belief that if Nash had not been off of the court at the end of Game One due to the blood rule that the Suns would be leading 3-1 now. Likewise, if the NBA suspends Stoudemire and/or Diaw and then the Spurs go on to win the series there will always be a "what if?" factor attached to this showdown. The reality is that injuries, foul trouble and suspensions are all part of the game. The 1972-73 Boston Celtics went 68-14 and then lost in the Conference Finals when John Havlicek suffered a shoulder injury; they went on to win two of the next three championships. In other words, the cream rises to the top. The Spurs and Suns have each been contending teams for several years already. The Spurs have won three championships and the Suns have not won any. Although the particulars of this game are surprising--namely, the Spurs blowing an 11 point fourth quarter lead and a five point lead with 2:22 left--I am not shocked that the series stands at 2-2. Before the series, I wrote that the Spurs would win one of the first two games in Phoenix and eventually capture the series in six games and that is still what I expect will happen. After the series stood at 1-1, I wrote in one of the comments sections after a post that I thought that the Spurs would win both games in San Antonio but would not be shocked if Phoenix got a split. Someone accused me of hedging my bets but I explained that I expected the two games in San Antonio to be close enough that Phoenix could steal one. If Phoenix had won both then I certainly would have been very surprised.
As I have mentioned a few times during the playoffs, people overreact to whatever they have seen most recently. When one team wins it seems like they will never lose again. The reality is that most series do not end in sweeps and in matchups between good teams the loser will usually win a couple games. Let's not forget that the Suns have the reigning two-time MVP and that they are the only team in the league that has two All-NBA First Team players. They have the homecourt advantage and by all rights should be considered the favorite based on team record and overall talent, so it would be pretty pathetic if they would lose in four or five games. It is not easy to hold down the Suns' running game and to consistently deny good looks to their three point shooters; that is why Phoenix racks up a lot of wins against weaker teams during the regular season. The question is can they beat the Spurs four times out of seven and I still say that the answer is, "No." I think that the rest of this series will most likely resemble the first 46 minutes or so of Game Four.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:49 AM