These franchises, once historically mired in playoff battle, have gone completely different directions since the turn of the decade.
The Spurs and the Suns have had great success in the regular season ever since the late 1980s, when Hall of Fame players like David Robinson, Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson starred for these teams, leading the best of the best in the always tough Western conference. As all of us Pounders know, the Spurs have had much luck in the regular season, reaching the playoffs every year since 1998, 15 times in a row. The Suns had their own double digit streak in the 80s and 90s, advancing to the postseason a franchise record 13 consecutive times, from 1988 to 2001. Both teams are also in the top four all time in winning percentage (along with the storied franchises of the Lakers and Celtics), but only the Suns have not won a championship. The Suns reached the Finals all of two times, in the 1975-76 season, and during Charles Barkley's MVP season in 1992-3, where they lost to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. The Spurs have had a great deal of success ever since acquiring David Robinson, but leaped to another level after drafting Tim Duncan in 1997, and have never missed the playoffs since, winning more than 50 games each season since the 1999 lockout, made even more special by doing it again during last year's shortened 66 game season. The Suns have been good-to-great teams in eras where truly great teams have reigned, and have not had the ability to get past the Spurs or Lakers these past years to success.
The Suns have faced the Spurs many times in the postseason, a total of ten times since 1992, or nearly once every two seasons. The Spurs fared better in these series, winning six of the ten matchups, en route to the Finals three of those times. While the Spurs currently have their hopes set on a Finals appearance this season, the Suns are residing in the basement of the Western Conference, plodding along with castaway players like Michael Beasley and Shannon Brown and inexperienced contributors, such as the Morris twins and Kendall Marshall. The Suns' rebuilding process has been put on hold until this year, as the front office attempted to build a moderately competitive team around Steve Nash in order to thank him for all he did for Phoenix, such as winning two MVP awards and leading the Seven Seconds or LessTM Suns to division titles from 2004 to 2006. Nash helped his teammates and coach/general manager not only on the court, but by building their resumes for future endeavors. Because they felt Nash deserved more than mediocrity, the Suns traded him to the Lakers this offseason for four draft picks (two first round and two second round) in hopes that he would finally reach the NBA Finals. Alas, the Lakers are still under .500 and are in danger of missing the postseason for only the 6th time in their history. The Suns failed to advance to the postseason in Nash's final two years in Phoenix, and his age (and lack of a ring) had him in search for greener pastures, which he may have found now that the Lakers are getting on track.
The current buildup of the Suns have no superstars, but lots of great role players. Many could be good second or third options on a playoff team, such as Goran Dragic, Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley. After starting 13-28 and in last place, the Suns fired their coach, Alvin Gentry, and placed Lindsey Hunter (former Detroit Piston player) in charge. With Hunter leading the Suns, they have gone 7-11, nearly a 40% winning percentage, much better than their 28% under Gentry. Hunter has emphasized defense and seems to have instilled a new confidence in this team. While they have good defenders in P.J. Tucker, Dudley and Gortat, they are erratic on offense, scoring under 95 points per game, which can't make up for the fact that they aren't that great on defense, allowing a smidgeon under 100 points a game, for a differential of more than 5 points. The Suns are in a three-way tie for last place in the West, and with a weak upcoming draft, it looks like the Suns will have to look to free agency for any real changes.
"He was just lying...he's got nothing to learn from me. We've been together long enough, he knows I don't know more than him or anyone else. It's all a big fake."
- Coach Pop on Alvin Gentry observing Pop's practices
Mini Game Hash
The Suns showed up to play tonight, and the Spurs very obviously did not. They scored a measly 1 point in the overtime period. They got to the line, but for possibly the first time this season, they lost the game due to bad free throw shooting. They also seemed very bothered by Phoenix's aggressiveness, had some bad layup misses and air balls. Manu Ginobili is still worrying me, 59 games into the waning season. This means Manu has 23 games to get all of the rust off and get to his peak playing level come the playoffs. With him not playing well, we can usually lean on Kawhi and Danny to take up the wing minutes, but they are still young, and can't create offense like Manu can. We need him to get past OKC and even the Clippers.
One bad game isn't usually something to worry about, but he was so off against the Suns that it made me worry that he's still not fully healed from his hamstring injury. He attempted 6 threes, and made two, his only field goals in the game. He also missed a crucial free throw at the end of regulation, and whiffed on three pointers in the extra frame. With 5 straight games at home in the next 12 days, he'll get plenty of time to get back to the old Manu we know and need.
Jermaine O'Neal had no business playing like he did last night. It was as if it was the wrong decade, with his 22/13 game and perfect pass for the game-tying bucket. He was dominating down low, and had timely baskets down the stretch. He also hit all of his free throws, which is more than I can say about Kawhi, Tony and Manu, who missed seven in total. I think if we had traded for him, he would've made some good contributions to the team. He would be a great bench center, now that Tiago is starting.
Which Morris twin is better? I'm leaning towards Marcus just because he hit that clutch 3 at the end of the game. Also, how erratic is Michael Beasley? He seems to be doing things on the court, but his box score reveals that he doesn't have much of an impact: 6 points, 1 rebound, 1 block, 1 turnover and 3 fouls. He also had a 0 +/- ratio. Frustrating misuse of talent.
O'Neal played a great game. He established position, grabbed a good amount of rebounds and had a couple and-1s. He was active, scoring 22 in only 27 minutes. He definitely took advantage of the Spurs' lack of bench size.
This Thing Was Over When...
...Jermaine O'Neal hit Wes Johnson for the game-tying 3 at the buzzer. Once they pushed it to the extra period, I knew the Spurs weren't going to be able to get it done. They failed to score a field goal in those last 5 minutes
Numbers of Note
- 13,006 - Tim Duncan's career rebounds, 15th all time, 11 away from 14th and 93 away from Shaq at 13th. Here he comes.
- 2 - Free throws missed by Manu and Tony in the last minute of regulation/overtime.
- 10 - Free throws missed overall.
- 13 - Goran Dragic's points and assists totals.
- 5 - Times I looked up to see which Morris twin had been traded to the Suns, and not which one was already on the team.
- 21.1 - Tony's Point per game this season, 10th in the league, and less than 2 points away from 7th.
- 22 - Points Tony scored tonight. The man is consistent.
- While Gregg Popovich is the longest tenured coach in the four major North American sports, the Suns have had two coaches this year, and third since Mike D'Antoni's firing in 2008. They've had seven different coaches during Pop's tenure.
- I can't stress enough how poorly the Spurs executed tonight. They missed open layups, clutch free throws and even whiffed on shots every so often. They looked gassed.
- DeJuan Blair seemed to be playing with some tenacity. I think he's more sure of his role on the team, so he's trying a bit harder in order to get minutes down the stretch. 15 points in 21 minutes. That's pretty good.
- SJax left the game during the 2nd quarter and went into the locker room. I hope he's okay.
- Tim Duncan is setting so many all-time career milestones. He has 757 double doubles, the most since players from the 1990s and on.
- According to the Suns' announcers, P.J. Tucker snarls too much, which contributes to his high foul rate. He needs to fix this, per Eddie Johnson's request.
- Even though I was sad that we lost to the Suns, I have to admit, Phoenix's black jerseys are great. They should wear those all the time.
Going into the Next Game, the Spurs Need to...
...be ready to face the erratic Sacramento Kings, who sometimes play up or down to their opponent, depending on what mood they're in. DeMarcus Cousins always tries to rile up Timmy and their guards are dangerous enough that this might turn into a game. If the Spurs jump on them early, it should be a breeze. The game will continue a much needed 6 game home stand.