Sunday, May 22, 2005

Western Conference Finals Preview-- Err, Review

By Paul Benedict

Why bother playing the games? I'll tell you how this classic Western Conference Finals matchup will really play out...

Steve Nash continued to quiet naysayers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals as his solid and sound play was more than enough to propel the Suns over the Spurs 110-90.

Game 1: SUNS 110, SPURS 90
Mike D'Antoni and the Phoenix Suns knew things weren't going to come quite as easy on offense against the Spurs as they have thus far in the Playoffs, but that didn't mean they weren't still going to attack their Western Conference Final opponent full throttle. Quentin Richardson scored 11 points during a 17-3 run midway through the 2nd Quarter to give Phoenix a 48-30 lead, and the Suns never looked back in pouncing the Spurs 110-90 in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Tim Duncan did not appear to be bothered by the right ankle he re-injured in Game 6 of the Conference Semifinals, but Greg Popovich still limited his star power forward to 26 minutes in the loss. 'The Big Fundamental' finished with 17 points and 8 rebounds, both team highs for the Spurs. Steve Nash once again lived up to his status as MVP by scoring 15 of his 19 points in the first half and dishing off a game-high 13 assists while committing just one turnover. Amare Stoudemire led the Suns with 25, with Richardson adding 22 and Shawn Marion 20 and 12 rebounds. Mike D'Antoni said after the game, "It was a team effort tonight just like it's been all season long. Sure my bench didn't see the light of day, but would you play Jake Voskuhl and Walter McCarty if they were on your team?!" Phoenix held San Antonio to just 41% from the floor and never allowed them to get closer than 8 in the second half. "This game really felt a lot like Game 1 against Denver, except that we went completely cold in the 2nd and not the 4th Quarter. I won't give the Suns any credit on defense-- they're easier to score on than Eva Longoria." Tim Duncan said. "But we can't afford to go cold against a team like Phoenix who can put points on the board as quickly as they can."

Game 2: SPURS 98, SUNS 88
There's a reason why Greg Popovich has a reputation for being the best disciplinarian outside of Bobby Knight and for knowing when exactly to light a fire under his team's ass. A day after claiming his team had their best practice of the season with reports speculating that Popovich threatened his team with whips, chains, and shingles if they didn't win Game 2, the Spurs went out and played perhaps their best game of the season in tying the Western Conference Finals at 1 apiece with a 98-88 win over the Suns. "We set the tone from the start that we weren't going to let them get so many open looks, and we were going to get back on defense. I'm glad my guys played like they did tonight-- otherwise it was their ass," Popovich said during the post-game press conference. He wasn't lying (they played outstanding defense and every player on the Spurs seemed more relieved than joyous after the game). San Antonio held Phoenix to just 17 points in the 1st Quarter on 6 of 20 shooting and allowed just 10 fastbreak points after giving up twice as many as Game 1. "You have to give them a lot of credit," Steve Nash told reporters after the game, "we ran them up-and-down in Game 1 and they came back and used a smaller lineup throughout much of tonight's game and we just couldn't get into our full court game as easily. It's a shame Popovich has to threaten them to get 'em to play like this, but it apparently worked." Beno Udrih and Devin Brown both played over 20 minutes for the first time this post-season, and combined for 24 points and 7 assists to give San Antonio a much-needed lift off the bench. The Suns sorely missed versatile guard Joe Johnson as they received just 4 points on 1 of 14 shooting combined from Jim Jackson and Leandro Barbosa. Johnson is expected to return for Game 3 when the series shifts to San Antonio.

Tony Parker is lucky the Spurs came out with a win tonight-- otherwise this warm embrace at the end of the game would have been a painful chokehold from Greg Popovich.

Game 3: SPURS 108, SUNS 103
Maybe it was the water, maybe it was being back at the SBC Center, or maybe it was girlfriend Eva Longoria being in attendance-- whatever it was, Tony Parker should as hell liked it. Parker scored a career-high 41 points, including an unprecedented 24 in the 3rd Quarter as the Spurs fended off a furious 4th Quarter rally from the Suns to win 108-103 and take a 2-1 lead in the Best-of-7 series. The 6'0" Frenchman hit 9 of 10 shots in the 3rd, including a couple of mind-boggling tear-drop floaters and a desperation buzzer-beater to close the quarter from 34-feet out to give the Spurs a commanding 85-70 lead heading into the 4th. "Tony was just fucking incredible. How that little shit hit some of those fucking shots, hell, I just don't know," said Quentin Richardson. Thanks to an improbable 10-0 run to start the 4th with the game on the line and the crowd all over them, the Suns almost clawed back. Joe Johnson, playing in his first game since totally fucking up his eye and face, nailed a huge 3-pointer with 9:47 left to cut the lead down to 5. He again buried a clutch 3 to get the Suns to as close as 4 with 4:33 to go, but the Spurs simply would not relent. "Jesus! A few days ago Joe Johnson looked like he had down syndrome. How he played like he did tonight, I really can't figure it out," said Greg Popovich after the game. Robert Horry's 3-pointer with 1:32 left put the Spurs up 9 and essentially put an end to any comeback the Suns had planned on making. Horry finished with 15 points.

Whatever Eva Longoria did for him before the game, Tony Parker sure as hell would like some more. The Spurs point guard went off for 41 points, 23 of them in an Isiah Thomas-esque 3rd Quarter, as the Spurs squashed the Suns 108-103 in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.

Game 4: SPURS 114, SUNS 112
It's highly likely that if the Suns season ends without them reaching the NBA Finals, they're going to look back at Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals and wonder what went wrong. Phoenix led by 19 at halftime, by 14 heading into the 4th, and by 8 with just minutes to go, but just could not hold off the San Antonio Spurs in losing 114-112 and falling behind 3-1 in the Best-of-7 series. "It was un-fucking-believeable man! It felt like any time we needed to make a shot, we missed," proclaimed Amare Stoudemire, "and every time they needed a score, they got it. And Tony Parker-- man! The next time Frenchie comes down the lane, I'm going to do with him like the TP he is and shit all over him!" Parker once again burned the Suns when it counted the most, scoring 12 of his team-high 26 in the 4th. The Suns had numerous chances down the stretch to extend their lead, but by making only 5 of 10 free throws in the final 5 minutes, and just 2 of their last 11 from the floor, they kept giving the Spurs opportunities to pull closer. Manu Ginobili sunk back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the lead to 2 with 1:47 to go and later made two crucial free throws with 3 seconds left to essentially end the game. "Yeah, I was you say? Feel' it? Umm...once Tony umm...started to petetrate...he kick, and they so scared that I drive and dunk in the faces, so I shoot and 6 points for us!"

Game 5: SUNS 154, SPURS 152 (4OT)
In what may go down as the greatest Playoff game in the history of the NBA, the Suns and Spurs fought to the death in an epic battle on this first day of June, but not before Steve Nash's buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the 4th overtime gave the Phoenix Suns a 154-152 win over the San Antonio Spurs. Nash scored 8 of his 36 points in the final overtime and also set a Playoff record with 26 assists, but it was his pull-up trifecta from 2 feet behind the line as time expired that saved Phoenix from riding off into the sunset this postseason. Steve Nash said after a game that lasted 4 hours and 8 minutes, "By that point in the game, you're so physically and emotionally drained that you're just pushing yourself from the heart, doing it for the fans and the team. I mean I felt like I cannonballed a 5th of Maker's Mark and a Bob Marley spliff by that 4th overtime. But hey, we're still alive and we have got to head back to Texas tomorrow morn--err, in a few hours." Manu Ginobili led all scorers with a career-high 49 points, but fouled out in the second overtime. A playoff-record 9 players fouled out in all-- Ginobili, Bruce Bowen, Tim Duncan, and Nazr Mohammed for the Spurs, and Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire, Jim Jackson, Quentin Richardson, and Steven Hunter for the Suns. "By the end of the game, I was actually subbing in Paul Shirley! I almost called up Bryan (Colangelo) and told him to fly in Yuta Tubase," explained Mike D'Antoni. The remarkable game was neck-and-neck throughout, with no team ever holding a lead more than 7 at any point. When Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire both fouled out within a 53 second span in the 1st overtime, it seemed like the Suns were done for. But D'Antoni replaced his All-Stars with journeymen Bo Outlaw and Steven Hunter, both who had fresh legs and were able to give the Suns a jolt defensively. Hunter set a Playoff-record when he recorded his 4th block in the 2nd overtime, and finished with a Suns franchise-record 8 in all.

Who could have guessed that Bo Outlaw would be integral in keeping the Suns from goin' fishin'?

Game 6: SPURS 106, SUNS 100
When you need your star to step up in a big game, there's no player more clutch than Tim Duncan. 'Groundhog Day' as Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith love to call him, had his most brilliant Playoff performance since Game 6 of the 2003 NBA Finals, scoring 35 points, ripping down 19 rebounds, blocking 7 shots, and sinking 13 of 14 free throws, including 6 straight in the last 2:14 as the Spurs advanced to the NBA Finals with a 106-100 win over the Suns. What was perhaps most impressive about Duncan's game was his defense on the Suns' star Amare Stoudemire, who finished with just 8 points on 2-14 shooting. Stoudemire, who struggled the entire series going up against the 2-time MVP (14.3 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 38.9 FG%), did a little venting after the game. "I sucked...I absolutely blew. My teammates needed me, and I fucked up. I played like Erick Damnqueer...I fucked up." Steve Nash, once again showing everyone why he was the MVP this regular season, nearly won the game for the Suns. With his team down 56-44 at the half and nobody stepping up on the offensive end, Nash took it upon himself to carry the scoring load by pouring in 21 in the second half, though in the end, it was not enough for the Suns. Greg Popovich could only praise Nash after the game. "Steve Nash, what a God damn player he is. We did anything and everything to slow that little hippie down. I put Manu on him in Game 2, Bruce on him in Games 4 and 5, and came back with Tony tonight, but he killed us every night out. I'm just glad we came out with a win." The Spurs advance to the NBA Finals for the 3rd time in 7 seasons where they will meet the Detroit Pistons.

Tim Duncan once again lived up to his billing as NBA Source's 'Most Clutch Player' by putting together a legendary performance in the Spurs' series-clinching win over the Suns, 106-100.

*If you don't trust me and feel like you need to actually watch the games to know how this series goes down, here's the schedule...

Western Conference Finals:
Game 1 - Sun., May 22 - San Antonio at Phoenix, 3:30 PM ET on ABC
Game 2 - Tue., May 24 - San Antonio at Phoenix, 9:00 PM ET on ESPN
Game 3 - Sat., May 28 - Phoenix at San Antonio, 9:00 PM ET on ESPN
Game 4 - Mon., May 30 - Phoenix at San Antonio, 8:30 PM ET on ABC
Game 5 * Wed., June 1 - San Antonio at Phoenix, 9:00 PM ET on ESPN
Game 6 * Fri., June 3 - Phoenix at San Antonio, 9:00 PM ET on ESPN
Game 7 * Sun., June 5 - San Antonio at Phoenix, 8:30 PM ET on ABC


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