Friday May 18th, 2007

With each game it becomes harder to imagine the Suns ever contending for a championship without Shawn Marion. Questions of his future are always in play because the Suns' expanding payroll is scheduled to cross the luxury-tax threshold this summer, and Marion's salary ($16.4 million next year, with an additional $17.8 million owed in 2008-09) has made him a rumored candidate to be dealt.

But the energy and toughness exhibited by Marion throughout these Western Conference semifinals have been indispensable. Phoenix is one game away from elimination after its 88-85 loss Wednesday gave the Spurs a 3-2 lead. But of all the Suns (not to mention David Stern and Stu Jackson), Marion is least culpable for their predicament.

He tried to set the example of how Phoenix could overcome the one-game suspensions of Amaré Stoudemire and Boris Diaw by assembling numbers in an outageous first half (20 points and 11 rebounds) that were equivalent to Tim Duncan's output for the entire game (21 and 12). When Duncan began the third quarter scoring and assisting the Spurs to an 9-2 run that instantly dissolved most of the Suns' 11-point halftime advantage, coach Mike D'Antoni went even smaller by shifting the 6-7 Marion to center and having him guard the 6-11 Duncan -- with the result that Duncan went 0-for-1 over the final 21 minutes.

"He goes from guarding the point to guarding the 5 at times,'' Suns guard Raja Bell said. "I don't know many guys who can do that.''

Marion's energy and defense have emerged as go-to strengths for Phoenix, giving the Suns hope of pulling off another road upset in Game 6 tonight and elevating this series to instant-classic status. The Spurs have been held to 97.2 points and 45 percent shooting throughout the semifinal, numbers that might have enabled the Suns to seize the overall lead in the series had they not been shorthanded Wednesday.

In concert with perimeter defender Bell and the gutsy play of Steve Nash, who has taken more hits than an option quarterback, the Suns have in this past week elevated their reputation from an open-court, non-defensive pretender to the kind of team capable of fighting it out on the Spurs' terms -- in the half-court, with execution and swarming defense.

The Spurs enter Game 6 confident that Manu Ginobili (26 points, 10 rebounds) is back in the flow, though his five turnovers -- including an errant backcourt pass over Tony Parker's head with 1:08 left -- were another troubling sign of the effectiveness of the Suns' defense. Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen have been hitting from outside, with Bowen's three-pointer breaking the tie once and for all with 36.4 seconds remaining. And Duncan has been himself, apart from his five-turnover fourth quarter in Game 4 that helped keep the Suns afloat.

Given Nash's exhausted state after playing 46 minutes Wednesday, the Suns could use a jolt from the return of Stoudemire and Diaw. (Robert Horry will miss Game 6 for San Antonio to conclude his penalty for fouling Nash, and if the game is close the Spurs will miss his big-play capability.) Their failure to run has put Leandro Barbosa (three field goals, four turnovers in Game 5) in a funk, and Nash (6-of-19 in Game 5) hasn't been shooting well against Bowen, Ginobili, Duncan and virtually everyone else in the Spurs' rotation.

But the revelation of this series has been Marion. Should the Suns go down tonight, they'll have big decisions to make. Could they get more in return by trading Stoudemire's contract this summer? Because the qualities Marion has demonstrated will be difficult to replace and are mandatory for championship contenders. Based on what we've seen thus far, the only sure thing is that Marion will do everything he can to prevent the Suns from having to face that decision.

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