Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns look to make the San Antonio Spurs a rival at last

by

“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  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.  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  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  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.

The Prediction

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.

  • Bushka

    Channing frye just owned tim on D :(

  • Bushka

    Bogans with the most unbelievable draw of a charge haha

  • Bushka

    Ok i give in…wtf is pop doing.

  • lvmainman

    Mason with 3:38 left entering the game down 5 pts, are you kidding me?!?!?!?! With Jefferson on the bench??

    WHY is Popovich being an idiot?

  • VP of Common Sense

    Here comes Roger!

    Kill me now…

  • Bushka

    I have been with you all season long Pop…I am getting ready to put on the life jacket and abandon ship right now however…

  • lvmainman

    Pop realized his mistake, called timeout, and put Jefferson in.

  • Bushka

    He must be reading 48minutesofhell on his Iphone.

  • Trade Tp

    Too much McDyess/Bonner again.

    We need to play small. Insert running bigs and Gs.

    Ian/Blair/Temple/Hairston… We cant control the tempo

  • Bushka

    I hate to sound angry and I know full well Mason sucked and Bonner was terrible.

    But Blair & Hairston is great, Ian is flat out not.

    You cannot play Ian in this series he is so horrible on rotations etc, this is the worst time to take a gamble on the defensive end.

    That said, i’d rather see Ian on the court than Mason.

  • Bushka

    Sigh…i’m off to kick someones dog.

  • Bob

    I think the Spurs best unit was Parker, Ginobili, Jefferson, Duncan, and McDyess. That unit was went from 10+ down to up 3. It doesn’t make sense why that unit didn’t play more.

  • Andrew

    Serious question: Does anyone remember the last time Mason made a shot in?

  • lvmainman

    If Duncan is not going to score in the post, in the halfcourt offense, the Spurs are toast. Duncan was atrocious guarded by Collins and Frye and he scored what 2 baskets? I know for a fact that 6 of his baskets came via pick and roll and running the break. Duncan has got to step it up or the Spurs are done.

    Also in NO game this year have the Spurs held the Suns under 110 pts. The Spurs need to be more effective offensively.

  • SPURSGERMANY

    G1 not totally undeservedly lost!!

    Parker, Ginobili, Jefferson, Duncan, and McDyess. Our best unit and Bogans in the 4th!!

    Pop came, saw ,understood and we are stealing G2

    But we have just have to get more consequently effective in our offense to surely beat them and win this series.

  • OliverJ

    “does anyone remember the last time Mason made a shot”

    I was just thinking that myself Andrew – the guy is done, cooked. Get him back to the D League.

  • jay thatch

    so spurs are going to sweep the suns now (or win 4 of next 5) after losing game 1? the suns won despite playing 5 on 6 (the refs being the spurs 6th player on the court as usual). now anyone watching game one knows what the suns are up aganist, and i can honestly say the only thing i was surprised at was not all the terrible calls by the pop puppets aka the refs, it was how poorly the spurs shot the ball and how much they didn’t seem to care. they looked listless. even the expected complaining to the officials was less vehement that what we are used to. popavich barley showed any type of emotion. he should join the world series of poker, seriously, nobody would ever know what cards he had. maybe he just picked up a bad burrito from one of the local taco peddleing street vendors that the good sheriff over here missed, and was just trying to hold it all in both figurativly, and literaly. and you all in sa must really be bored with only the spurs in town to watch/ cheer for. now tell me, do you guys ever get tired of the silver and black whining to the refs, or is that your favorite part of the show?

  • Jim Henderson

    Lose tempo battle, shoot 22% from three, RJ AND Hill in single digits, in Phoenix, and 9 out of 10 times you’ll lose. Need to regroup and take game two, just like we did in Dallas.

    Must come out more aggressive & intense at both ends, crash the boards (get Blair more burn inside the paint), SLOW the pace down, and DO NOT PLAY Mason, at ALL.

  • Bushka

    I would have loved to see them post Blair up considering how little post D they had to offer, really not happy on seeing any Romaju at all.

  • rj

    good lord! great street fighter quote!!! you guys are awsome.

    how about this one

    “I AM THE POSTMAN, AND YOUR ASS IS OVERDUE!!!”

    “GET OUT FROM BEHIND THE CURTAIN, WIZZARD!”

    keep in mind these quotes must be said with a poor belgian accent

  • juicejuice

    wow welcome to the big leauges san antonio. someone should give the geriatric spurs some viagra so maybe they can get up next game and actually play. the only time they even had a chance was when the suns got complacent and bored cause they had such a nice lead. popovich looks like he has aids. ginoblis nose almost poked me in the eye through the tv and Tim duncan is the missing link , one of his parents was definently a monkey. Amare played like shit and still got point and rebouns even though he played with a lack of energy. the spurs will only beat the suns if the suns beat themselves by not showing up and playing their best basketball. the other x factor is the referees who love to suck the spurs off especially in san antonio. In the end the spurs are the most boring team in the NBA and it makes for way better basketball if the suns move on. I cant wait for the suns to wrap this series up so we can beat the lakers in the western conference finals.

  • Bushka

    lol, god he was to acting what Matt Bonner is to Dunks.

  • George

    Interesting reading all the comments after the Spurs go done 0-2. All the Spurs in 5 predictions are out and 6 would be tough. I think Suns fans are foolish if they start believing this series is over.

    I did want to clarify the Suns “curse.” From the Suns perspective, the Spurs beat the Suns twice when it mattered: 04-05 with J. Johnson, Stoudemire, Nash, Q Richardson and Marion. They had no bench. Once Joe Johnson was out, there went .25% of the offense and half the defense. They were through.

    In 06-07, the suns had dumped Q and JJ for a group of about 5 that actually played. Impartial observers felt that the Suns were in a good position at 2-2 going home until Stoudemire and Diaw moronically left the bench.

    I would never be so foolish as to say the Suns would have lost without those two events. However, it will always be a shame that neither of those two teams couldn’t have a full strength try through the playoffs. Those who say that team could have never won just don’t understand that we’ll never really know.

    As far as 05-06, the Suns were without Stoudemire ((all year) and K. Thomas in the playoffs. When Bell also went down, they no longer had a chance and were finished by the Mavs. That wasn’t a team that most thought could win it all. The other Spurs wins were against low-seeded Suns.

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