Western Conference Semifinal Preview -- Suns vs. Spurs
The Suns and their fans should be craving this matchup. Beating the Spurs would start to rectify all sorts of perceived wrongs -- injuries, suspensions, bad juju -- that have bewitched this entertaining but lopsided postseason rivalry that includes two San Antonio triumphs (in 2005 and 2007) when the Spurs were the lower seed. Besting the uber-fundamental Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan crew would also trump skeptics (such as yours truly) who have questioned the defensive spine and rugged resolve Suns coach Alvin Gentry has fostered.
Unlike the Celtics' whupping of Dwyane Wade and the Titos, there was enough grit and magnificence in San Antonio's toppling of the Mavs to validate the Spurs' status as a viable championship contender. Their Big Three remains selflessly resourceful and cold-blooded at crunch time, and are now ably abetted by a pair of role players who stepped up in the first round -- George Hill and Antonio McDyess. Even Richard Jefferson has caught half a clue on how to function in Popovich's system. The lower-seeded Spurs are viewed by many in the media as the favorites. That should be just the way the quietly red-hot and underappreciated Suns like it.
Manu Ginobili vs. Grant Hill. This series is loaded with compelling matchups, including the contrasting styles of Duncan (pictured above) and Amar'e Stoudemire in the low block and the perennial Steve Nash versus Tony Parker fireworks out at the point. It's not even certain that Ginobili and Hill will be regularly guarding each other, although after the job Hill did on Portland's Andre Miller to turn around the Suns' first-round series, it's hard to imagine Gentry eschewing the chance to put his best perimeter defender on the catalyst of the Spurs' offense. Hill has two inches and 15 pounds on Ginobili and is one of the precious few NBA players with the spidery physique and genius basketball IQ to cover the crafty Manu on the perimeter while refusing to be suckered into fouls by his up-fakes and careening stop-and-go penetration. And as a 43.8 percent shooter from three-point range with quickness and handle enough to get to the rim, Hill is capable of giving Ginobili a dose of his own medicine at the other end of the court. Both players are absolutely vital to their teams' success and are fierce, high-character, perpetual-motion competitors. What a treat it will be if they get the chance to test each other's endurance in such a high-stakes setting.
Suns: The bench. Even more than fundamental, the word that best characterizes the Popovich-Duncan quasi-dynasty is relentless. San Antonio's unremitting competence has broken Phoenix in previous playoff series, but this year's Suns are a deeper team than past editions. They can counter Popovich's gambit of bringing Parker off the bench not only with the similar go-go energy of Leandro Barbosa but also the playmaking prowess of Goran Dragic, Phoenix's counterpart to George Hill. If San Antonio's physicality is starting to overwhelm Stoudemire and Channing Frye, Gentry can trade size for sinew and sub in Jared Dudley and Louis Amundson. This depth has provided crucial succor to geriatrics like Nash and Grant Hill and enabled Stoudemire to exert himself on defense (for a change). Phoenix wouldn't be here without its bench.
Spurs: Richard Jefferson. Failing to account for the explosive offense of Jason Richardson -- and failing to exploit Richardson's mediocre defense -- doomed Portland in its first-round series with Phoenix. If Jefferson is ready to atone for his underwhelming regular season and continue the gradual improvement he has shown since mid-March, he is capable of reducing the value J-Rich gives the Suns. Honorable mention X-factor status goes to McDyess, whose mid-range jumpers were vital in beating the Mavs and could be equally timely in this series; and Parker, whose selfless ability to flourish in a diminished role has allowed Popovich to maximize George Hill's confidence and contribution.
Phoenix is probably the most underrated team among the eight remaining contenders. The Suns boast the most potent offensive trio in Stoudemire, Nash and Richardson, underappreciated depth and remarkable consistency -- they haven't lost two games in a row since late January. I had them finishing out of the playoffs in my season preview and wrote in early March that they lacked enough defense to succeed in the postseason. Even after losing center Robin Lopez to a back injury, they proved me wrong both times. Thus, it wouldn't surprise me to see them beat the Spurs.
But San Antonio seems destined to be Phoenix's bete noire. Even during their regular-season struggles, the Spurs loved playing up-tempo -- they finished 19-6 against the eight fastest-paced teams in the NBA. The Suns, however, were the one team in that group that posted a winning record against San Antonio, taking two of three. Phoenix averaged 112.7 points in the three games, more than five higher than any other Spurs opponent. But after watching the Spurs methodically dismantle Dallas -- a team I picked to make the NBA Finals -- it just doesn't feel right going against Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Popovich, especially the way McDyess and George Hill performed. The Spurs' brutal late-season schedule toughened them for the postseason, and now they are healthy, hungry and primed for one more championship campaign. Their run will continue at least into the conference finals. San Antonio in 6.