Suns' Valiant Effort Sans Stoudemire, Diaw Falls ShortWithout the services of the suspended Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, the Phoenix Suns needed to play with tremendous energy and they needed a superstar level performance from two-time MVP Steve Nash. The Suns certainly put forth a valiant effort, leading for most of the game but, when push came to shove, Nash was very good, not outstanding, and he did not do much in the fourth quarter as the Suns fell just short. The Spurs made a late run to win 88-85. Manu Ginobili had 26 points, including 15 in the fourth quarter, tying his career-high for points in a quarter of a playoff game; Ginobili also pulled down 10 rebounds. Tim Duncan added 21 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots. He was the dominant figure in the game, even though he only scored two points in the final quarter: the Suns were forced to double-team Duncan to slow him down and that opened up the court for Ginobili and the other Spurs. Shawn Marion led the Suns with 24 points and 17 rebounds but he only had two points and six rebounds in the second half. Nash had 19 points and 12 assists but shot just 6-19 from the field; he shot 1-8 from the field in the fourth quarter.
San Antonio took a 9-4 lead to start the game but TNT's Steve Kerr put it best: "Both teams look a little off kilter." By necessity, the Suns shortened their rotation and used a small, quick lineup. They were able to push the ball and get into the open court, closing the quarter with a a 20-4 run. Marion did most of the damage, scoring 11 points in the first quarter. The Spurs went through a stretch in which they missed nine straight shots and trailed 24-13 at the end of the period; the 13 points is their lowest output in any quarter, regular season or playoffs, this season.
Things got even worse for the Spurs in the second quarter as the Suns built a 40-24 lead. At that point, Nash had three points and five assists. He certainly contributed to the Suns' success but the star at that juncture was Marion, who had poured in 18 points--three of his field goals were assisted by Nash but he was also producing a lot on his own and grabbing a ton of rebounds. The Spurs steadied themselves a bit after that and rallied to trail 44-33 at halftime.
The Spurs chipped away during the third quarter, getting as close as four points, but the Suns still led 62-56 going into the fourth quarter. Raja Bell made a three pointer and Kurt Thomas made two free throws to put Phoenix up 67-56 with 10:24 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Spurs answered by scoring seven straight points, a run ended by two Marion free throws. Phoenix seemed to have withstood San Antonio's best shot and still led 79-71 at the 5:18 mark. From that point on, the Spurs showed their championship level poise, outscoring the Suns 14-6. Nash made two free throws and had one assist during that critical phase of the game, shooting 0-5 from the field and fouling Ginobili while he shot a three pointer. Ginobili made all three free throws to cut the margin to 79-77 Phoenix and the Spurs tied the score on their next possession. Meanwhile, while Nash faded during that 5:18, Duncan made two free throws, blocked three shots--one of them by Nash--and attracted double teams that helped other Spurs to get open; that is just as valuable as when Nash passes to someone and gets an assist.
With the score tied at 81 the teams traded turnovers and missed shots before Bruce Bowen made one of his trademark corner three pointers. The Spurs' defense and free throw shooting carried the day after that. People who don't understand basketball will say that the suspensions of Stoudemire and Diaw clearly cost the Suns this game because the final score was so close. The reality is things are not that simple. If both teams had played their regular lineups from the start maybe the Spurs would not have trailed by 16 in the second quarter as they scrambled to adjust to the Suns' smaller unit--or maybe the Suns would have been up 20. The point is we will never know for sure. All we can say is that the Suns led for most of the game and had many opportunities to win--and their two-time MVP shot 1-8 from the field in the decisive fourth quarter, while the Spurs' two-time MVP drew double coverage that opened the court for his teammates, particularly Ginobili, to shine. If Nash had shot anywhere close to his normal percentage in this game, perhaps the most important one of the year for the Suns, then Phoenix probably would have won. So, everyone who wanted to shift his MVP vote from Nowitzki to Nash after round one might as well be consistent and keep right on shifting--to Duncan.
Game Six should be very interesting but it is highly unlikely that it will resemble Game Five at all; the Suns will go back to their normal lineup and the Spurs will probably be in control most of the way, like they were in Game Four. Barring a repeat of that game's unusual fourth quarter collapse, the Spurs will eliminate the Suns and move on to the Western Conference Finals.
posted by David Friedman @ 9:10 AM