Friday April 25th, 2008

As the First Round Series That Could Be The Conference Final moves to Phoenix on Friday night, two obvious questions present themselves:

• Can the Suns come back?

• Is the Spurs' Gregg Popovich outcoaching his Suns counterpart, Mike D'Antoni?

Both are easily answerable. Yes and no, respectively.

Of course the Suns, as bad as they've looked at times, can come back. What, they've never won two in a row at home?

And as much as the one-coach-is-beating-the-other-coach theory has been advanced, it is far too simplistic to see the first two games of this series, both San Antonio wins, as a victory for Popovich's brain over D'Antoni's.

This storyline of so-and-so outcoached somebody else has been overblown, as it usually is. Sure, it happens. It's a good bet that, say, Jim Valvano would've outcoached Guy Lewis into perpetuity, as he did in the memorable 1983 NCAA championship game. But great coaching reveals itself over a long period of time, not in one or two games. If you want to have a discussion about whether Popovich is a better coach than D'Antoni -- or a better coach than anyone, in fact -- well, that's a legit discussion. But the Spurs are not ahead 2-0 because one coach is on his game and another is off.

Cases in point. In Game 1, Popovich set up two potential game-tying three-point shots. Michael Finley and Tim Duncan made both of them. Is that great coaching or great clutch shooting? (Hint: It's the latter.) In Game 2, Popovich decided to play hack-a-Shaq and sent Shaquille O'Neal to the free-throw line on three occasions for two shots each. Shaq made five of six. Had the Spurs lost the game, that would've been held up as a boneheaded stratagem, but it didn't matter because they won. (Incidentally, Popovich hinted that he won't employ hack-a-Shaq anymore, but don't bet against it. From a percentage standpoint, it still might work since O'Neal missed six of his other eight free throws.)

From the other perspective, it's a safe guess that D'Antoni didn't go to his ace sixth man, Leandro Barbosa, and say, "L.B., we want you to miss all seven shots and generally play like you're in a fog." Which is what the Brazilian Blur did in Game 2, continuing a pattern of poor play against the Spurs.

Now, having said all that, the Suns obviously have to do a few things differently in a must-win Game 3. Counting on a change of venue alone will not do it.

The obvious place to begin is on defense, considering the Suns have surrendered an astonishing 128 points in the paint in the first two games. But I'm not going to begin there. Yes, the defense has been deficient, but remember that Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs' squirmy guards, get into the paint against anybody. Challenge No. 1 for the Suns is to be more efficient on offense, and that means getting Steve Nash off the ball once in a while.

I didn't say out of the game -- I said off the ball. The strain of getting Phoenix into its offense with Bruce Bowen, that most determined of defenders clinging to him, is extremely difficult, even for an All-Star like Nash. I've rarely seen any player work as hard to get 25 and 23 points as Nash did in the first two games, respectively. It's beyond obvious that he still has to be the trigger of the Suns' offense, but if Nash could come off some screens and get good looks on jumpers, it might loosen the pressure from Bowen.

Now, who to get him the ball, given the fact that Barbosa has been seemingly powerless against the San Antonio defense? Challenge No. 2 is to use Boris Diaw as a ball handler once in a while. He seems reluctant to shoot underneath -- unselfish to a fault, as Diaw leads the universe in the category of passing up a two-foot shot to get a teammate a 20-foot shot -- so perhaps he could play quarterback a bit and demonstrate the decision-making he displayed during the 2005-06 season, when he won the league's Most Improved Player award.

Challenge No. 3 is to get Grant Hill healthy. He, too, could help as a triggerman, but, more important, Hill could check Parker from time to time, thus giving Nash a break from the daunting challenge of trying to stay in front of the jitterbugging point guard. That is Challenge No. 4: offering up a more varied diet on Parker. (The status of Hill, who has been hampered by a groin strain, is uncertain for Game 3.)

Playing better in the second half is Challenge No. 5. That sounds so simple -- don't you want to play well in every half? -- but it makes sense to establish it as a priority. The tendency on Friday night will be to come out of the locker room fired up and build a big cushion, something Phoenix did in both of the first two games. Perhaps the Suns were emotionally gassed. Save some energy for the final 24 minutes -- that's when you have to be at your best to beat the Spurs.

Challenge No. 6, the hardest one, is to figure out how to contain Ginobili. Parker and Duncan are the eternal verities of the Spurs, but the left-handed-shooting guard has a way of killing the Suns. Play off him and he hits threes. Crowd him and he gets into the paint, sometimes for a three-point play. Double him and he finds a teammate for an open shot, as he did in Game 2 when he flipped a blind pass to Duncan for a layup that sealed the deal.

So how do you defend him? Hey, if I were that smart, I'd be a coach. And I'd probably be getting outcoached.

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