Monday April 21st, 2008

The best NBA rivalry since the Kings tried and failed to knock off the Lakers six years ago is frantically underway, and the Suns hope to produce a different ending than their forerunners in Sacramento.

The Suns desperately need to win Game 2 on Tuesday at San Antonio, which is a statement of unusual urgency in the opening week of a playoff tournament that will run for two months. But the Suns must avoid needing four wins in five games against a team that's knocked them out two of the last three postseasons.

"I do think we're the better team,'' Suns coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters in San Antonio on Sunday. "We've got to prove it, though.''

There is a huge canyon between thinking it and proving it against the Spurs. The series opener Saturday turned into the best NBA game of the season, and after prevailing 117-115 in the second overtime, the Spurs hugged and celebrated as if they'd won a Game 7 in May rather than a Game 1 in April. It took a winner-take-all approach to win Saturday, and Game 2 will provide an early glimpse of which team has the staying power to prevail.

"We had the game won a few times and just weren't tough enough or disciplined enough to make every single play when it counted,'' said Suns point guard Steve Nash, who had 25 points and 13 assists.

Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Raja Bell played more than 50 minutes, and Nash, Michael Finley, Manu Ginobili and Amaré Stoudemire went for more than 44. The ages of the key players on both sides will be put to a test: Will their experience help them in the crucial moments, or will their advanced mileage -- the Spurs have 11 players who are 30 or older, while Nash, Bell, Shaquille O'Neal and Grant Hill are in the same category -- tire them as the series advances?

"It feels like a Finals game,'' Duncan said after going for 40 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks Saturday. "It's the first game of the first series, and we're going to have to muster energy back up.''

It helps both sides that the first round is spread out to enable TV coverage of all eight opening series. They'll have two days' rest in between each of the first three games, and obviously there are no back-to-backs in the playoffs. The extra rest could be particularly helpful to Hill, who was limited to five points in 28 minutes in Game 1 while playing with a lingering groin injury.

The Suns can draw strength from the fact that the Spurs needed low-percentage three-pointers at the end of regulation from Finley and the end of the first OT from Duncan (his first of the season) to extend the game. Most important to Phoenix was the play of Leandro Barbosa, who provided 12 points and eight rebounds in 41 minutes while exploiting opportunities in transition. His failure to do much of anything one year ago was a big reason why Phoenix was unable to beat San Antonio in the '07 playoffs.

The Suns also benefited from a productive 32 minutes by backup big man Boris Diaw (12 points, four rebounds, three assists), who was another no-show last season against the Spurs.

Much as they wanted to believe they were the better team last year, the Suns were once more bemused by losing a game in which they had largely outplayed the defending champion. The Spurs used to have similar feelings in the playoffs against Shaq and Kobe during the championship era of the Lakers.

A persistent theme since last year has been the unreliability of Stoudemire, who produced 33 points, but also committed a game-high six turnovers before fouling out with 12 seconds left in the first OT. His failure to rotate to the perimeter resulted in Finley's open three-pointer at the end of regulation. He fouled out while driving into former teammate Kurt Thomas, a charge that gave San Antonio possession for Duncan's confounding three.

Another ongoing theme -- foul trouble up front -- forced Stoudemire, O'Neal and Diaw to the bench at the end of the first half, enabling the Spurs to trim a 14-point deficit to eight by intermission. The Spurs exploited the interior to outscore Phoenix 72-46 in the paint, with 50 of those Spurs points coming after halftime.

San Antonio needed 10 extra minutes to steal the win while getting a combined 90 points from its star threesome of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker. But that will provide little consolation to Phoenix. The Spurs believe they can improve defensively after permitting Phoenix to shoot 50 percent from the floor.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.