Writer's note to editors: please do not file this under the 'game recap' section. I still consider it more of an opinion piece.
The Spurs have been exposing, outclassing and shredding apart the psyche of the Suns, ousting them from the playoffs in three of the last four years.
Sunday marked my first trip to San Antonio for a Spurs contest since game four of the 2008 Western Conference Finals.
The Spurs glided to a 13-point halftime lead and held on to win 103-98.
Tim Duncan had notched a double-double, 13 points and 12 rebounds, by halftime, and Tony Parker infiltrated and danced around the Suns' porous defense for layups, scoop shots, floaters, and 15-18 feet jumpers.
Parker torched Alvin Gentry's revived fun-and-gun Suns for 30 points and nine assists. He scored 12 points in the fourth quarter.
Because it is easy to notice the contributions of the Spurs' stars, I watched the complimentary players instead. These support men must be precise if the team wants to make any noise in the playoffs.
The four-time champions are defined as much by their bargain contributors as they are by the greatness of the star trio.
With Manu Ginobili out at least one more week and Drew Gooden's debut on hold, the Spurs will need the supporting cast to muster brilliance this week. On tap for the Spurs: Larry Brown's streaking Charlotte Bobcats, the Los Angeles Lakers and a road date with the Houston Rockets.
What other team could clobber two playoff hopefuls with two All-Stars in street clothes?
Here's a look at how the role players drove Sunday's win.
His statistical line may be unimpressive—two points, four rebounds, one steal, one block—but his impact on the game was undeniable.
He played all of 45 seconds before Popovich sic'd him on Steve Nash for the entire fourth quarter. Give credit to Hill for not complaining or questioning his coach's odd Sunday rotation. He entered the contest and perhaps left his coach wondering why he had been sitting on the bench in the first place.
With the playoffs looming, Popovich has rekindled his Roger Mason backup point guard experiment. It has cost Hill valuable minutes. However, instead of sulking about it, he produces when he does see court time.
Nash registered 10 assists and 18 points through three quarters. With Hill on him, he notched just one assist and scored five tough points. He nailed a stepback trey with the shot clock expiring and Hill's hand an inch from his eyelids.
Hill forced a miss on another three-point attempt that might have been the play of the year had it dropped.
Nash coughed up the ball three times. Though the box score gives Hill credit for only one of those steals, his long-armed defense allowed Tony Parker and Kurt Thomas to grab the other two.
On one of the turnovers, Hill crowded Nash and forced him into a wild wraparound pass to Shaquille O'Neal that Parker quickly swiped.
On another, he forced Nash to go baseline into traffic, where Thomas was waiting to steal the rock.
He then wrestled the ball from Nash with less than 10 seconds to play to sew up the win.
His one score, a cutting layup off a Roger Mason Jr. feed, pushed the lead to five with a minute and a half to play.
Though he came off the bench and played only 15 minutes, his effort was heroic. For all of those who have cried for the Spurs to snag another big, it is easy to forget about the toughness and savvy Thomas brings every night.
He scored six points, pulled down five rebounds and recorded a steal. Those numbers could not begin to encapsulate how he impacted the game.
His most timely score was a buzzer-beating jumpshot to push the Spurs halftime lead to 13 points.
With Duncan on the bench, Thomas took multiple turns on O' Neal in the fourth quarter and may have guarded him better than Duncan did.
Early in the fourth quarter, he bumped O'Neal out of position before Nash could get him the ball. When O'Neal did receive it, he was 10 feet from the hoop and forced into a leaning hook shot that had no chance.
Several possessions later, Thomas extended his arms over O'Neal and harangued him into a wild bunny shot.
O'Neal finished 6-of-16 from the field. Thomas rendered him useless in the fourth quarter.
Thomas also stole a misguided Nash pass, thanks to Hill's pestering, and dished it to Parker for an easy score.
Popovich has been effusive in his praise of Udoka and Jacque Vaughn, two veterans whose playing time has been slashed with the emergence of Hill and Mason.
Again, they never complain or protest their predicaments. They practice tirelessly and always stay ready for the coach's call.
Lately, Pop has decided to reintroduce Udoka to the rotation. He scored in double figures for the second straight game against the Suns.
He scored his 11 points in a variety of ways. He drilled an open three, slipped to the basket off a Parker feed for an and-one, attacked the rim to earn a pair of foul shots and bagged an open 16-footer.
He played 24 minutes and defended three different players. While he and no other Spurs effectively contained Leandro Barbosa, he played a chief role in Jason Richardson's woeful 6-of-15 shooting night.
It should be noted that Mason also shot 6-of-15. Most of his misses were open, Richardson's were not.
It is clear Bowen has lost a step defensively. Perhaps age is finally dogging the 38-year-old physical freak.
Still, he put his length and well-conditioned, bulky body to good use against Nash, Richardson and Barbosa.
He missed 4-of-5 shots, his lone make a three-pointer. His value as a once reliable three-point marksman from the corner has waned.
Other evidence of a decline forced by age: Nash beat Bowen to the rim twice for easy scores.
Play that shows he can still frustrate opponents with his physicality: he gave a little bump before Nash fired a mid-range jumper and forced a miss. There was not enough contact to merit a foul call, as the replay showed, but Nash was livid enough that he cussed out referee Scott Wall.
Even from the top of the upper bowl of the AT&T Center, I could see that Nash was yelling something unrepeatable on this site to Wall. The official spared him a technical foul.
Bowen's other supreme defensive jobs include lockdowns of Vince Carter, Brandon Roy and forcing Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade into high volume, poor shooting nights.
Bonner made 2-of-5 shots for five points and grabbed five rebounds. His outing was serviceable, not great.
Still, on two possessions, Popovich saw evidence of the improved defense he has praised from the New Hampshire product.
Barbosa was about to speed by Michael Finley en route to the hoop, so Bonner ran over to help and forced the "Brazilian Blur" into a tough floater that he missed.
In the second quarter, he bodied up Grant Hill at the top of the key, who threw up a junk turnaround.
O'Neal posted up Bonner once and swooshed an easy hook shot with his left hand. Several other Suns also took Bonner to the hole and finished layups or fadeaways.
Indeed, Popovich still yanks Bonner after a missed rotation or botched defensive stand. Yet, there is a lot for the coach to laud about the effort this frugal, humble forward-center puts forth.
Finley may no longer be a creative scorer, but his pull-up jumpshot and his treys off double teams are money in the clutch.
His last three-pointer pushed the Spurs lead back to double digits and stole back any momentum the Suns had gained after a spirited second-half comeback.
He added 11 points, five of them in the last five minutes of the game, on 4-of-7 shooting.
He went to his pet move with the Spurs lead cut to three. pulled up from the free-throw stripe and pushed the score to 98-93.
ROGER MASON JR.
Has any free agent acquisition performed better for his salary than Mason?
His clutch shots late in four key games are plastered all over YouTube. His most dramatic game-winner ruined Christmas for many already disheartened Suns fans.
Early in Sunday's game, he drilled an open three-pointer that had to remind the Suns of that fateful shot.
I'm not sold on the idea of Mason as a backup point guard. Though he did notch three assists without a turnover, most of his decisions with the ball were rushed. He attempted four ill-advised jumpers and had every one of his drives to the basket swatted away or deflected.
However, two of his three assists were big ones on cuts to the rim. He found Kurt Thomas driving to hole for an easy layup. That was part of a 13-0 Spurs run in the second quarter.
He then dished to Hill for the aforementioned layup late in the fourth quarter.
He managed one notable defensive stand against Richardson in the second quarter. He stayed down as Richardson tried to bait him into a foul with a veteran upfake. Richardson's wild shot clanged off the rim.
Mason also has a knack for creative scoring. He cannot replace Manu Ginobili, but his mid- and long-range bombs after jabsteps, pump fakes and dribble drives give the San Antonio offense and additional, dangerous dimension.
Popovich loves role players with something to prove. He doesn't care how high a guy can jump, how many points he can score in a D-League game or how vicious his dunks are.
Even though he knows some of the above qualities are useful, he prefers the less athletic guys no one else seems to want because hard work is their only chance at success.
He would much rather pay Jacque Vaughn to be a player-coach and a third option at the point than Pops Mensah-Bonsu. The kid can throw it down and manufacture offense when he gets touches, but is his defense smart or lethargic?
The latter is what likely made the decision to cut Mensah-Bonsu to open up Drew Gooden's roster spot an easy one.
The contributions of Finley, Thomas, Hill, Bonner, Bowen, Mason and Udoka in Sunday's win offered further proof of the team's admirable selflessness.
It also helps that Duncan, Parker and Ginobili never make egotism an issue. When no one cares who scores, the ball swings like a hot potato until it finds the right man.
That willingness to share also helps on the defensive end, where communication and the ability to help are essential.
If the Spurs somehow survive another Western Conference playoff run, the role players will be as instrumental in making it happen as the stars.
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