By Chris Mannix
May 10, 2010

February sure seems like a long time ago. Three months after nearly being dismantled at the trade deadline, the Suns are eight wins away from an NBA championship, courtesy of a gritty 107-101 win over San Antonio that advanced Phoenix to the Western Conference finals

1. No excuses, the Spurs got beat.TimDuncan's free throw shooting (he was terrible). ManuGinobili's nose (it hurt). TonyParker's shoulder (it hurt too). The Spurs could rattle off a laundry list of excuses but the bottom line is that the Suns were the superior team in this series. San Antonio had no answer for Channing Frye on the perimeter, were dominated in the middle quarters when both teams went deep into their bench and in the battle of superstar big men, Amar'e Stoudemire was flat out better than Duncan.

"They made it hard for us to guard them for 48 minutes," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "We'd go into the fourth quarter and someone for them would step up."

Indeed, in Game 4 it was old reliables Steve Nash and Stoudemire who slipped on the Superman capes. With the Spurs hounding Nash and denying him the ball early in the quarter, the Suns offense devolved to a series of isolation plays. And Stoudemire delivered, knocking down five of his seven shots, finishing the period with 12 of his 29 points.

Nash, whose total accumulated blood loss attests to the effort he has put in during a career spent battling San Antonio, spilled a little more when an errant third-quarter elbow by Duncan opened a gash above his right eye that required six stitches to close. With the eye swollen shut, Nash scored 10 points (on 4-of-8 shooting) and dished out five assists in the final 12 minutes to keep the Spurs from sneaking back in the game.

"He's just a determined person," said Suns coach Alvin Gentry. "Steve has taken us to a good place."

2. Nash finally managed to beat his nemesis. Taking the podium after the game, his face battered and his body weary from 37 minutes of play ("Steve looked like he was in a boxing match tonight," said Jared Dudley), Nash admitted what most felt to be true: that after dropping four straight playoff series' to San Antonio, beating them was indeed special.

"I don't want to glorify it but it has been a long time since I have beaten this team," said Nash. "I tried to do everything I had to do to close them out tonight."

Nash also revealed that the Suns' confidence was higher going into this series because the size discrepancy between the two teams wasn't as wide as it had been in previous years. In the past, the Spurs paired Duncan with big bodies like David Robinson, Nazr Mohammed and Rasho Nesterovic and, as Nash put it, "played volleyball" in the half court, lobbing entry passes over Phoenix's undersized defenders for easy looks. Even with Robin Lopez sidelined, Phoenix was able to battle Duncan and neutralize perimeter bigs AntonioMcDyess and Matt Bonner.

3. Manu Ginobili is the Spurs go-to player. On Sunday, they couldn't go to him. A rough series for Ginobili was punctuated with a disappointing 15-point (on 2-of-11 shooting), nine assist effort in Game 4. Ginobili lacked his usual kamikaze aggressiveness, frequently settling for jump shots. His contested 25-foot trey with 12 seconds left and the Spurs trailing by four exemplified his lack of confidence, a problem that stems directly from the broken nose he suffered in the first round.

"He has had a tougher time since [the broken nose]," said Popovich. "It wasn't due to a lack of effort. It just [didn't] work out for him."

4. Changes could be coming in San Antonio. Popovich rarely makes excuses but after the game he alluded to the strain of an unusually uneven season.

"This season was rough for us," said Popovich. "They made it to the second round of the playoffs. I'm proud of what they did and that's that."

Obviously the changes Popovich and Co. made coming into the season -- specifically the additions of Richard Jefferson and McDyess -- did not pan out as expected. With age a real factor (Duncan, 34, Ginobili, 32 and McDyess, 35 are on the back end of their careers) the Spurs may need another infusion of talent if they hope to extend this group's run. That could translate to either Parker or George Hill being dangled in a trade. Whatever happens, it seems unlikely this group will remain intact.

"I really think so," said Ginobili when asked if the Spurs can still contend. "I have been telling people this for five years, when people [first] started talking about age. I think we are always competitive. I would go with these guys again."

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