Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns must be popping Tums like candy with the indigestion they likely have after advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals.
A mere two weeks ago, it seemed everything was lining up for the Phoenix Suns to be able to fast-break their way to the conference finals to face the Lakers. After all, their toughest opponent before then looked to be the Dallas Mavericks.
The Portland Trailblazers? No, Portland had too many injuries to compete for an entire series. While they sure made a series of the affair, injuries evidently kept the Blazers from displaying any sort of real depth.
The Mavericks? No, the Suns could simply force Dallas to play at their pace, a sure-fire way to ensure they could simply outscore the opposition.
Yet it was the San Antonio Spurs that came into the postseason as arguably the hottest team in basketball. The Spurs made history by being the first seven seed to take down a two seed in the modern best-of-seven format.
Gregg Popovich was seemingly ridiculed by the Mavericks when, during the last regular season game, he rested his stars, ensuring a first-round match-up with the Mavericks instead of the team from Phoenix.
At the time, many—including fellow Spurs featured columnist Robert Kleeman—publicly criticized the move by Gregg Popovich. After all, the Spurs had owned the Suns in the postseason, no matter the seeding or home court advantage.
In the end, the Spurs proved that age and experience are completely unrelated in a series in which they forced the Mavs to lose composure time and time again, also proving why it is the Dallas Mavericks, not the San Antonio Spurs, who sport the oldest roster in the NBA.
For the second time in four seasons, Mark Cuban made the biggest splash at the trade deadline—this time seemingly loading the roster with tanks for a gunfight—but for the third time in four seasons, exited the postseason in the very first-round.
The defeat stings for the Mavs enough without adding in the fact that it was their I-35 rivals that knocked them out, as a seven seed no less. It has left such a bad taste in their collective mouths that Jason Kidd skipped out on the final team meeting before the offseason and Dirk Nowitzki has himself actually entertaining the thought of possibly playing somewhere other than Dallas.
With the first-round victory, the Spurs find themselves heading to Phoenix to face a familiar opponent: an opponent they’ve owned in the postseason.
Many can remember in 2007, when composure also ended up deciding a Spurs-Suns' series as well. As the Suns' players managed to lose composure on the bench during an on-court altercation, many believe it ended up costing their team the series.
In 2008, the Suns once again faced the Spurs, this time in the first round. After outplaying the Spurs for most of the game, fate had it’s own way as even Tim Duncan made a three-pointer to force extra time. The rest is history, as the Spurs went on to nearly sweep the series, ending up taking it in five games.
Back to the present, the Spurs must be licking their chops at the opportunity to feast on the Phoenix Suns. The Spurs have always been able to force the Suns to slow down just enough that stifling defense gets just enough stops to allow the Spurs to come out on top. Why would the team think this year will be any different? After all, the team is finally playing the defense Popovich had envisioned to start the season, the kind of defense that won his team four championships already.
While it could be easy for the Spurs to expect an advantage coming in, they know it would be silly to discount any opponent; just ask them about the New Jersey Nets earlier in the regular season.
While the core group of players for each team remains mostly intact, changes have taken place since the last time these teams squared off in the postseason.
Goran Dragic has performed well enough for the Suns off the bench to allow Steve Nash some extra rest time. Dragic has earned 18 minutes a game this season, and whereas the Spurs have usually feasted when Nash is on the bench, they may find the task to be tougher this season.
One of the changes comes on the Spurs themselves. Tim Duncan, over the past two years, has lightened up in order to help his aching knees. At times, it seems as if he feels young again, but at others, it seems as if the Tim Duncan of old has all but disappeared. It usually becomes easy to tell how Duncan is feeling on any given night when he settles for bad jumpers instead of driving to the hole.
George Hill has become a major spark for the Spurs. The sophomore guard has looked like the most important player on the floor some nights, but he’ll need to perform better away from the AT&T Center for the Spurs to continue their postseason dominance of the Suns.
Richard Jefferson, the expensive offseason acquisition for the Spurs, should be able to contribute in a big way for the Spurs. Although he has struggled at times to adjust to a half-court offense, he’ll have a chance to get out an run on some fast-breaks during this series. I expect Jefferson to have a few really good games. The unspoken asset Jefferson has been providing is a spark on the defensive end on nights when he might not be scoring in double digits.
The Suns will be happy to know that Bruce Bowen is no longer with the Spurs, although George Hill has seemingly been able to slide in as the team’s best defender.
Jason Richardson provides a consistent scoring threat outside of Nash and Stoudemire for the Suns, and Grant Hill has undoubtedly reinvented himself for the Suns, at times providing flashes of his former self before injuries nearly derailed his career.
With everything said, the Spurs likely go into the series with all the momentum. Their defense will again prove key and the team possesses more scoring threats than when these teams squared off in 2008.
The Spurs will hope to force Amare Stoudemire into early foul trouble. The Suns take on a different look when the threat of Stoudemire isn’t on the floor.
The biggest key for this series will be bench play. Gregg Popovich will hope that Tony Parker can provide a lift off the bench and players such as DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner can provide timely baskets and rebounds at points in the game where the Big Three might not be on the floor to contribute.
When all is said and done, the Spurs still have the Suns' number, and I expect the Spurs to win the series in six.
While the Spurs are busy licking their chops, Steve Nash and the Suns need to hope that some Tums are enough to relieve the stomachache they must be feeling at having to face the Spurs in the postseason…again.
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