Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns look to make the San Antonio Spurs a rival at last
“For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me…it was Tuesday.”
—Street Fighter: The Movie
And so renews the most heated one-sided matchup in recent NBA history. The San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns are an interesting story to tell, depending on who tells it. You see, in Phoenix the ghosts of Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich haunt the desert nights, riding in every spring to torment the locals.
In Phoenix, those hated men in black are the source of a thousand wrongs upon which vengeance is sworn. For the Phoenix Suns and their fans every significant moment of their playoff lives inevitably leads back to the San Antonio Spurs.
Bruce Bowen’s greatest hits. The bloody nose. Robert Horry checking Steve Nash into the scorer’s table. And just to be a little more villainous, the Tim Duncan three-pointer. Each of these moments, and so many more, are ingrained into the hearts and memories of every single Phoenix Suns fan.
For the San Antonio Spurs…it was just Tuesday.
The Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs? Now that’s a rivalry. Each team has eliminated the other, and each has played the game on the grandest possible stage. For the past decade, the Suns have been just some random team. Having exorcised a few playoff demons by eliminating one of their two bitter rivals, the Spurs move west along I-10 hoping to face the second.
In the interim, the most important question is whether the Phoenix Suns will again be merely a playoff speed bump, or will they rise up and finally be the rivals they and their fan base fancy themselves?
Having returned to their “seven seconds or less” ways under head coach Alvin Gentry, the Phoenix Suns seem to have finally settled on an appropriate balance of offense and defense (apparently with an assist from Jason Terry). The San Antonio Spurs, meanwhile, have opened up and diversified their offensive attack.
Tim Duncan’s forays into the post now buttress the offense created by the three-headed backcourt of Manu Ginobili, George Hill and Tony Parker, rather than creating them. The defense has slipped some. And while stylistically the two teams remain different, they are no longer on completely opposite sides of the spectrum. But does that mean the gap has closed?
Point Guard: MVP vs. MIP, George Hill hopes to contain Steve Nash
In Dallas, the Spurs faced a franchise player in Dirk Nowitzki who was brilliant offensively but lacked any defensive chops. Unfortunately between Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner,San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich did not have very many options to exploit this fact.
Steve Nash has no such luck. With Popovich tightening the backcourt rotation to various combinations of Manu Ginobili, George Hill and Tony Parker, there is no Bruce Bowen to hide Nash’s defensive liabilities on anymore. But if the Suns are to choose, Nash on Ginobili would be a nightmare and history shows that giving him prolonged minutes on Tony Parker is a bad idea.
Chances are Alvin Gentry starts with Nash on George Hill, who was key in closing out the Mavericks but still relies primarily on spot up jumpers and transition baskets for offense. And score Hill must, because Steve Nash is not Jason Kidd.
There will be no shutting down the two-time MVP. The most Hill can hope to do is offset his production. In the past, Popovich’s final gambit was to put Bruce Bowen on Nash for each of the closing acts. For all his defensive strengths, perhaps the most underrated Â was Bowen’s ability to fight through screens. Because of this, the Suns struggled to generate mismatches as the Spurs rarely had to switch. Will Hill be able to recreate this, or will we see him left on Amare while Duncan or McDyess are left at Nash’s mercy?
It might be odd to call Nash a good athlete, but his athleticism is underrated because he is not what we would consider explosive. Instead his game has a certain level of fluidity and dexterity that few athletes can compare to. Â It will be important for Hill and the Spurs to force Nash to initiate the offense from a stop, where his lack of explosion can be a weakness. Fighting through screens would also help, as a help defender taking one step too many in the wrong direction generally leads to a Stoudemire dunk.
Shooting Guard: The Argentinian vs. the Acrobat, with no Raja Bell, who stops Ginobili
Jason Richardson is a newer addition to the Spurs-Suns history but has already been introduced to the so-called curse of the Spurs, having blown a wide open dunk to cost the Suns a game. A game that, without a victory, leaves the Spurs playing the Lakers in the first round.
Richardson came up big in the first round, averaging 23.5 ppg on 53 percent shooting, hitting over 50 percent from the three-point line. Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith once called Richardson the most “unathletic Â athlete” in the NBA, which is an appropriate description because while he is a great leaper, he does not move well laterally or change directions smoothly. It will be interesting to see how Richardson responds when the Spurs chase him off the three-point line while denying those straight lines towards the rim.
Manu Ginobili will be key in this series and will likely see Grant Hill and Jared Dudley on him throughout the series. With all due respect, if Ginobili is right following his broken nose, there has not been a better player since March and neither should be able to guard them. Dallas began to load up their defense to stop his penetration, leaving role players like McDyess or Hill free to do their damage. With Ginobili it becomes pick your poison, and he supplies all different kinds.
Small Forward: Richard Jefferson squares off against Grant Hill, the Suns medical staff.
Because games with the Phoenix Suns tend to become fast paced, something the Spurs have even had trouble containing in the past, this series should play right into Richard Jefferson’s hands. Breathtaking straight line speed and an explosive leaper, Jefferson struggles in the half court pick and roll sets the Spurs like to run, though he was much improved in the Dallas series. Look for Jefferson to get involved early before giving way to the Spurs three-guard lineup.
The other Hill, Grant, has been taped together by the Suns medical staff and provides the Suns with another facilitator on the court. While a good midrange shooter, Hill does not possess great range on his jump shot. And so when paired with Jarron Collins in the starting lineup, the Spurs have far fewer distances to rotate out to.
Power Forward: From Nowitzki to Stoudemire, no rest for Antonio McDyess
With each passing series pundits claim this will be the year Stoudemire replaces Duncan as the preeminent “power forward” in the Western Conference. And with Duncan on the wrong side of 30, if they say it enough eventually they will be right. But is this the year?
It’s a difficult comparison because the two will rarely, if ever, guard each other. Instead Stoudemire will have to be concerned with Antonio McDyess, who can still hit the offensive boards, make midrange jumpers and move his feet.
Amare Stoudemire has been a matchup nightmare of the Spurs because they stubbornly leave him with single coverage for most of the game. In the past, that’s meant Fabricio Oberto or Matt Bonner seeing extended minutes on him, but McDyess offers a far better defender.
But as easy as it is to focus on the offensive strengths here, the key is defense. As much as he has been able to get his points against the Spurs, he has offset his production with horrible defense. For all the blame Suns fans heaped on Steve Kerr for trading Shawn Marion, it was just as much Stoudemire’s fault.
Had he shown even the slightest inclination to be a defensive anchor, the Suns would not have had to traded for Shaq. Which is a shame, because all the physical tools are there. For all the criticism Nash receives for his defense, guarding the pick and roll is all about the Â help defenders and Stoudemire does his MVP point guard no favors.
Center: Tim Duncan vs. the poor man’s version of Erik Dampier
Until the return of Robin Lopez, and unless he returns at full strength, Tim Duncan will find himself on Jarron Collins with bouts of Channing Frye mixed in. Offensively it will be interesting to see if the Suns send double teams because in the past Duncan has shredded them to pieces. Collins provides everything that Dampier does (namely a large body to absorb fouls), only worse. And as Dirk Nowitzki said, it’s hard to beat the Spurs when they do not have to worry about your center position.
Bench: Tony Parker vs. the Legion of Suns
The Phoenix Suns might actually have the deeper bench in this series, rolling out Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic, Channing Frye and Leandro Barbosa. But the Spurs have the best player, Tony Parker. With Dudley and Hill expected to see most of their time on Ginobili, Parker should find favorable matchups all series. The key to containing Parker then will be how Stoudemire hedges the pick and roll, something that has never been favorable for the Suns.
Bonner offers the same game as Channing Frye, but for some reason is criticized twice as much for his poor defense. Something to watch will be the minutes of DeJuan Blair, as the Suns lack the quality size Dallas had and he could easily be given more burn in the series.
This is the most complete Suns team the San Antonio Spurs have ever faced, though injuries (Nash, Lopez) might play a part. But the formula for success has always been in the Spurs big three and until someone beats them healthy (or until they meet the Lakers) they have to be favored.
Spurs in six. The non-rivalry continues.