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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

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



At Tuesday, May 15, 2007 4:55:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

This has to be a disappointing loss for the Spurs, because they were in firm control of the game most of the way. It almost seemed to me that they got too comfortable and relaxed. There did not seem to be a great sense of urgency once the Suns had chipped their lead away to 3-5 points.

I think Gregg Popovich made a mistake when he took Tim Duncan out of the game with over 5 minutes to go after he picked up his 5th foul. That's when the Suns took control of the game, and I think in that case, given the fact that the Suns had been rallying, you have to keep Duncan in the game and take your chances.

As a basketball fan, I hope no one is suspended. I hate having to hear excuses for losses, and I don't want Suns fans to have the opportunity to make excuses if the Suns lose the series with Amare and Diaw missing Game 5.

I, for one, don't think Horry's foul deserves a suspension (is a Flagrant 2 an automatic suspension?). It may have been a bit harder than necessary, but I'm not convinced he intended to knock Nash into the scorer's table. I wouldn't be surprised if Nash acted a bit on that one. Considering that his main defensive strategy is flopping, Nash's natural reaction to any contact these days is probably to fall down.

Honestly, that foul looked like a routine foul from old Lakers-Celtics, Celtics-Piston, or Pistons-Bulls series. I think the league is getting a bit carried away and too suspension-happy. Should they look into suspending Bell and Nash too for trying to go after Horry? I also think players are reacting too much to any little foul.

In any case, this bitter loss should provide the cure to the Spurs' temporary complacency. I expect Duncan to take charge and lead the Spurs to victory in Game 5, no matter who is suspended.

At Tuesday, May 15, 2007 6:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

A flagrant two carries an automatic ejection but not an automatic suspension. Since he made no play on the ball and the contact was excessive, I expect for him to be suspended for a game (like James Posey last year); I think that he deserves a game suspension for what he did. You can't just go by what used to happen because there are different rules and standards in place now. I do think that Nash "sold" the contact but Horry is 30-40 pounds heavier than Nash. It was just a stupid, unnecessary play by Horry.

Nash and Bell did not do anything physical, from what I saw, so there is no reason to suspend them.

In retrospect it would have been better to keep Duncan in the game but hindsight is always 20/20. I'm sure that Popovich thought that Ginobili could hold down the fort on offense and that they could then go to Duncan late in the game. As it turned out, Manu disappeared and, other than the one putback, Duncan was not able to score in the last two minutes.

I don't know if the Spurs lost their sense of urgency but they definitely lost sight of their basic principles: Tony Parker went after an offensive rebound but the Spurs usually don't do that so they can get back on defense and deny easy scores; the Spurs had several breakdowns that allowed open three pointers, another no-no in their system, particularly against Phoenix; their transition defense in the last few minutes was terrible, allowing the Suns to get layups and dunks.

I also think that the Spurs will win Game Five, regardless of who is suspended. People forget that even the greatest championship teams often had rough playoff runs; one of Jordan's teams was down 2-0 to the Knicks. The Shaq-Kobe Lakers survived some seventh games and some tight series. Nothing that Phoenix has done in the playoffs since Nash arrived gives one reason to think that they will win three straight against the Spurs or three out of four, which is what they need to do to win the series after going down 2-1 at the start.

At Tuesday, May 15, 2007 6:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

And before someone asks: No, winning three straight against the Lakers in '06 as the heavy favorite is not the same thing as beating these Spurs three straight or three out of four. I wonder if the Lakers had squeezed one more defensive rebound in Game Six or if Thomas missed the three pointer if we would have heard as much negative talk about Nash's MVP last year as we have about Dirk's impending MVP this year?

At Tuesday, May 15, 2007 9:00:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

it was me!!!

its all ego in the NBA unfortunately, and if some of these players are stupid enough to go on the court in this situation so be it.

i don't care about this "heat of the moment" rubbish, they have a responsibility, and they may well have just cost the Suns any chance to progress - they'll have no-one to blame but themselves!

oh yeah, and Barkleys comment about Rose etc is total BS.

At Tuesday, May 15, 2007 12:53:00 PM, Blogger marcel said...

phoenix finaly showed something rather than going down 3 to 1 they stepped up won a big game on the road for the first time in the nash era spurs probably thought it was another 6 game series and it looked like that for most of the game where the suns get hype up and never deliver. they delivered finally yesterday aint it something that they might lose stoudamire and diaw the next game because phoenix has control of this series with home court back in there avantage this is finally a series and phoenix aint going to have there playrs oh well as you said david thats tough they no the rules. im a lakers fan anyway but im a nash fan as well so to them mature like they did then not get a chance to fully capitulise is bad but it's the rules

At Tuesday, May 15, 2007 1:20:00 PM, Blogger element313 said...

"The Spurs have won three championships and the Suns have not won any."

yeah, that third title is really relevant, seeing as how many minutes David Robinson logged for SanAn this year.

my pick in this series is the Celtics, b/c they've won more titles than either team

At Tuesday, May 15, 2007 4:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Very funny, Alternaviews. The Celtics aren't playing, of course--but Tim Duncan, the MVP of each of those three Spurs title runs, is. Let's see who comes up bigger in the next couple games--Duncan or Nash.

Nash has had a pretty good run with the media so far--two MVPs, no criticism. If the Suns lose this series, his injury in Game One or the suspensions--if they happen--will be the excuse this time around. I have nothing against Nash the player; how many times do I have to say that I rank him in the top five in the league, which is higher than any statistical system places him? I just don't understand why he is not held to the same standard as previous MVPs and as current MVP winner Nowitzki and MVP contender Bryant.

If Amare is suspended then we will be able to test this theory that it is Nash--and not the overall depth of the Suns--that makes Phoenix go.

At Tuesday, May 15, 2007 7:51:00 PM, Blogger element313 said...

suns are done.

Horry is a genious -- he isnt worth that much on the court, but was smart enough to try to injure Nash. Failed but got Amare out for a game.

this might be the biggest shot of Big Shot Bob's career

give teh guy credit for single-handedly taking over this series

Nash is good but cant counter Tim Duncan or get him into foul trouble down low

MVP of series, easily is Horry. Brilliant body check

At Wednesday, May 16, 2007 1:57:00 AM, Blogger marcel said...

yeah phoenix is done cause tim duncan is the best player on the court as altna and david said nash cant get tim in foul trouble so he's going to dominate they gonna have to double everytime those other players make shots this is the first time i think that phoenix belives they could beat the spurs unfortunately they wont have the player that puts them over the top

At Wednesday, May 16, 2007 8:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I thought that Nash was the Suns' best player; why can't he "put them over the top"?

Horry would have to be a psychic, not a "genious" (sp.), to foresee that his foul would cause Stoudemire and Diaw to be the only two players to lose their minds and leave the vicinity of the bench. Horry's foul was a cheap shot, just like JRich's was against Okur; actually, I thought that Baron's shot against Fisher was worse than either of the other two and I was surprised that he was not suspended for delivering a blow to the head.

At Wednesday, May 16, 2007 2:50:00 PM, Blogger element313 said...

i mispelled genius.

you are in love with the shooting guard on a marginal nba team to the point of writing about him after playoff games between teams that dont involve him

... i'll take my foibles over yours, thank you

At Thursday, May 17, 2007 11:37:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I'm discussing the best teams and best players in the NBA. Spurs/Suns are two of the best teams. Dirk, Nash, Kobe finished 1-2-3 in MVP voting, which was just officially announced on Tuesday.

I am also interested in how the media cover various players/teams. For instance, last year Kobe and LeBron had virtually identical statistics in game seven on the road when their teams lost in blowouts but only one player was accused of quitting--an absurd accusation to anyone who watched the game and who knows anything about the player in question.

Why didn't Nash shoot better than 1-8 in the fourth quarter of a pivotal playoff game? Game Five was there for the taking. What would you say if Kobe shot 1-8 in a similar situation? All I ask is an honest answer.

At Thursday, May 17, 2007 2:27:00 PM, Blogger element313 said...

nash played a very disappointing finish to game 5, and i would fault Kobe for taht type of play (as I did in Game 5 of LAL v. phx).

Nash normally shoots with a high arc, but at the end of the game he was hoisting up line drive 3s, and his last 3 wasnt even a 3, b/c he had his foot on the line. his foul of Ginobli's 3 may have cost Phx the game -- and yet he argued it and called it a flop when (unlike 99% of fouls on Ginobli) it clearly wasnt a flop.

that said, I'll retort to the refrain that apologists for the lakers shooting guard always use: he is not the reason the lost the game and he needs more support

Nash had 19 & 12, and his poor shooting was a bit misleading b/c he took a lot of three pointers. he only had 3 TOs, and he drew key charging fouls -- one on Parker, and I think one on Duncan perhaps. so he played well enough to win the game, which i suspect they would have, if they had their full squad

but besides Nash, which Suns players would you take over the spur counterpart in this series?

Duncan over Amare (when he even plays), easily

Ginobli over Barbosa by a country mile

Marion over Finley, but not by that much considering Finley's shooting, and is this even the right matchup in the analysis?

Bowen and Bell about even

rest of bench huge advantage to Spurs: Oberto, Cheap Shot Rob, Barry, etc. vs. Kurt Thomas and who else... (Jalen Rose?)... easy advantage for Spurs

as for Marion, all-star yes, but he doesnt create his own shot that often -- usually feeds off Nash feeds

so let's see how the rest of series goes. but Nash certainly wasnt herculean in Game 5

At Friday, May 18, 2007 7:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I agree with most of your analysis of the game. Nash was not the main reason that the Suns lost--but he is a two-time MVP and did not find a way to be the major reason for his team to win.

Now that you have come around a bit on the point that the quality of the supporting cast does in fact have an impact on winning surely you must agree that Kobe's supporting cast is vastly inferior to Nash's, Duncan's or Dirk's. Carrying that Lakers team to the playoffs is pretty impressive. Kobe has a major impact on the game--not just statistically, but also by drawing extra defensive attention that frees up his teammates; the problem is that he does not have a Bowen, Ginobili, Bell or Barbosa to make open shots or attack the hoop after a defender runs him off of the three point line.

I'm not sure I get how Nash's poor shooting is "misleading." He shot 1-8 in the fourth quarter. Even if you take the last desperate shot out of consideration for some reason, he still shot poorly both in the quarter and in the game overall--and since I'm quite sure that you and everyone else would give him a ton of credit if he somehow made that desperation shot I'm not sure that missing it should simply be discounted. Kobe hit a desperation three over two guys a few years ago to clinch a division title for the Lakers. One advantage that Kobe has over Nash and Duncan is that he can create his own shot in the clutch with the clock running down; Duncan has to be fed the ball, and Nash's size and lack of jumping ability can be a hindrance when time is short (obviously, with sufficient time he can use his ballhandling skills to get free but on a catch and shoot he is no Kobe Bryant).

I agree with Duncan over Amare. Why do you say Ginobili by far over Barbosa? Barbosa's effectiveness has mainly been curbed in this series by Duncan's presence at the rim. Without that deterrant, he is quite effective; if Barbosa were with Duncan and Ginobili were on the Suns then Manu would face that same problem. Marion is a much better player than Finley at this stage in every important area except outside shooting--finishing at the hoop, rebounding, defense.

Suns' bench is mainly Thomas, Diaw and James Jones--the rest only play in dire emergencies. Thomas is a very good low post defender. Diaw is a Swiss Army knife--great passer, decent scorer and rebounder. Jones is a shooter and doesn't do much else.

The interesting thing to me is, regardless of how you or I evaluate the players, the Suns are the much more decorated team this year. Duncan is All-NBA and All-Defense, Parker is an All-Star and Bowen is All-Defense. Manu has been an All-Star but not this year. Meanwhile, Nash is second in MVP voting and on the All-NBA First Team with Amare. Marion is an All-Star. Barbosa won the Sixth Man Award. Diaw was the starting center just last year on a 54 win team. The Suns have a lot of talent. Nash is a great player but he's not out there by himself. The fact that you could take away Amare and Diaw and the Suns were still in a position to win despite Nash's less than
"herculean" performance shows how much talent Phoenix has. That is why I have never bought in to the idea that the Suns' regular season record the previous two years proves that Nash is the MVP. Yes, he deserves to be All-NBA First Team and in the top five in MVP voting those years and this year--but I don't believe that at any time in the past three years that he was the very best player in the league. That is part of the reason that his team doesn't make it to the Finals; he always runs into a team that has a player who is just as great or greater than he is. Duncan is the central figure in this series; he has shut down the paint on defense, particularly in crunch time, and the Suns have to either double him and leave shooters open or let him abuse his defender one on one on the post. On the other hand, the Spurs can just put Bowen on Nash, stay at home on the shooters and rely on Duncan to block or alter shots that are attempted in the paint. Nash has played pretty well in the series--and has had some brilliant moments--but he has not had the impact that Duncan has.


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