FanShot

Hollinger picking Suns-Spurs series to decide the West

http://insider.espn.go.com/nba/playoffs/2010/insider/columns/story?columnist=hollinger_john&page=PERDiem-100430 Found the text of the article over in the enemy camp... it's interesting that he doesn't mention Lopez at all, so I guess he's not expect back soon enough to be a factor in this series. And I had no idea that Nash's hip stain was so bad... it's a good thing for them that they beat Portland last night, otherwise they might have had to play Nash on a day's rest anyway, aggravating his injury. Spurs-Suns series may decide West With apologies to fans of the Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets and Thunder, I think we have our Western Conference finalists. Unfortunately, they're playing each other in the second round. San Antonio and Phoenix were the West's two hottest teams entering the playoffs, ranking second and third, respectively, in my Power Rankings at the end of the regular season. Only Utah had a better point differential, as both squads closed with a bang -- the Suns finished on a 28-7 tear, while the Spurs went 18-8 against an impossible stretch of schedule. What makes this series really special, of course, is the history. Phoenix and San Antonio met in a contentious, memorable 2007 series that led to Steve Nash's gushing nose in the opening game, suspensions for Suns forwards Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire in Game 5 and the Spurs winning the series in six games. Much like this year's series, that one was a conference semifinal but also the de facto West championship, as the Spurs lost just once in the final two rounds en route to their fourth title. Two years earlier, in 2005, the Spurs had an easier time beating Phoenix in five games after the Suns lost guard Joe Johnson to a broken bone in his face in the conference semifinals. And in 2008, the Suns and Spurs met again, with San Antonio winning the first-round series in five games after Tim Duncan's first 3-pointer of the season tied Game 1 at the buzzer and sent the Suns reeling. There are ironic parallels, as well. When Steve Kerr, a Spur for four of his final five seasons, took over as Suns general manager in 2007, he tried to model the teams after San Antonio. He went as far as to hire one-time Spur Terry Porter as his coach and tried to instill a half-court style that flew in the face of the Suns' seven-seconds-or-less approach. Thankfully, Phoenix abandoned that approach and has returned to its up-tempo ways. Instead, it's the Spurs who have become more like Phoenix. San Antonio still gets Duncan his touches on the block, but it has increasingly become an up-tempo, guard-oriented team that spaces the floor and gets its offense from backcourt players Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and George Hill. Belying their rep as a defensive juggernaut, the Spurs finished the regular season ranked just as highly on offense (ninth in efficiency) as on defense. Instead, we're left with an entertaining battle that looks too close to call on paper. I saw these two teams play twice in person, but both felt like anomalies, so I'm not sure how much we can learn from them. The first was in mid-December, when neither team had hit its stride, and the second was an April game in which the Spurs started Garrett Temple at point guard. Temple will be lucky to don a uniform in this series, let alone play, so using that game as a barometer seems pointless. On paper, this is about as close to a coin-toss series as you can get. Let's take a look at a few of the variables that likely will decide the winner: • Health: Steve Nash's hip. Manu Ginobili's nose. Tony Parker's foot. Tim Duncan's knees. Most players are battling some minor ding or another by this time of the year, but the problems seem particularly acute among the Western contenders. This series in particular, with an every-other-day schedule until Game 7, has the potential to wear down the participants further. They're already at less-than-full strength. Nash was useless for most of Game 6 against Portland because a hip strain acted up, and the Suns will be hard-pressed to win the series if he can't recover during the three off days. For San Antonio, Ginobili had a monstrous final two months of the season, but broke his nose in the series against Dallas and struggled for three games before scoring 26 in the clincher. Parker, who came off the bench in the first round, is battling plantar fasciitis that's robbed him of some of his breathtaking quickness. And Duncan, of course, has sore knees that may have contributed to his underwhelming performance in Games 4 and 5 against Dallas. • Bench: The story of the benches in this series will not only be about how they play, but about how they're used. Phoenix is going to go much deeper and play its subs much more often than San Antonio will. At times, the Suns will play a five-man bench unit of Goran Dragic, Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley, Louis Amundson and Channing Frye. The Suns' subs have been devastatingly effective, but they're also going to be playing a lot more against opposing starters this series. The Spurs, on the other hand, mostly used six players in the first round, and only eight players saw action in all six games against the Mavs. Look for Parker to see extensive minutes off the pine. Otherwise, only Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair are assured to play. Blair, in particular, won't play much -- only for 10 minutes while Tim Duncan takes a breather -- and deeper subs like Roger Mason and Keith Bogans will likely only see brief cameos. • Small ball: The most interesting tactical question in the series is how the two sides will line up at the power forward spot. Both teams have a nominal starter -- Jarron Collins for Phoenix, Antonio McDyess for San Antonio -- who is likely to sit in crunch time. Collins has more use in this series than the last one because of his post defense against Duncan, but the Suns usually only use him for the first six minutes of each half. Down the stretch, expect either Frye, the floor-spacing big man, or Dudley, the little-things specialist, to man the position, with Dudley the more likely to get the call since the Suns struggle to defend when Frye and Stoudemire play in the frontcourt together. Another option is to play even smaller with Nash and either Dragic or Barbosa at the guards, and Jason Richardson and Grant Hill at forward. That look could be particularly tempting if the Spurs are playing Hill and Parker together in the backcourt, which they'll likely do for long stretches. San Antonio, in fact, is likely to match the Suns' arrangement by limiting McDyess to 25 minutes or so -- most of those matched up on Stoudemire -- and playing Richard Jefferson or Bonner at the 4 the rest of the time. San Antonio doesn't need a true big man to guard Frye and will want the extra speed on the court if the Suns are playing their greyhounds. As a result, I'd expect Stoudemire and Duncan to be the only big men on the court over the last six minutes of each game, especially if fouls aren't an issue on either side. • Karma: We've built up Spurs-Suns as a big rivalry, but you know the old saying: It's not really a rivalry until both teams have won when it matters. Thus far, it's been all Spurs, which means it's a huge rivalry to the Suns and pretty much another game for San Antonio. The Spurs, in fact, just vanquished their most-hated rival last round when they dispensed with Dallas. You can't help thinking the basketball gods owe Phoenix one after the Johnson injury in 2005, the nose-gusher and the suspensions in 2007 and Duncan's unlikely triple in 2008. Or maybe the Suns are destined to continue their star-crossed history. The Suns have basically been the pre-2004 Red Sox of the NBA -- they have no titles, but all sorts of unlikely playoff losses and near-misses dot a résumé that otherwise matches that of any NBA franchise. On the court, this will be a nonissue as long as none of the players dwell on it. As both Nash and Suns coach Alvin Gentry pointed out after the win over Portland, the Suns have a lot of new players and only three of them (Nash, Stoudemire and Barbosa) took part in the previous Suns-Spurs battles. Where it might be a problem is if something unfortunate happens early in the series, and then they have to deal with folks like us asking them about it every day for two weeks. Despite Phoenix's unfortunate history, however, I think the Suns have enough talent at present to get through. Nash isn't at peak efficiency, but Stoudemire and Richardson have been fantastic and the Suns have the best bench in the West. San Antonio is a formidable opponent, but between the home-court advantage and the torrid finish -- even with Nash weakened, the Suns handed Portland three of its four worst losses of the season last round -- it seems to me this is the year Phoenix breaks through and makes this a true rivalry. Mostly because they have home-court advantage and I have to pick somebody, I'm predicting the Suns to win this series in seven games.
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