Sun Block
Eighth-seeded Phoenix is creating tough matchups for the Spurs

The Spurs' reward for having the league's best record turned out
to be a first-round matchup from hell. When rookie forward Amare
Stoudemire banked in a three at the end of regulation in Game 1
last Saturday and Phoenix teammate Stephon Marbury did the same
in overtime, the eighth-seed Suns claimed a shocking 96-95 win,
their fourth victory in five games with San Antonio this season.
Though the Spurs bounced back to win Game 2 on Monday, 84-76,
they're in a unexpectedly tough fight.

The top threat to the NBA's top team comes from the 6'2",
205-pound Marbury, one of the league's strongest point guards.
"You see Steph take off and go up against 6'10" guys," says
Mavericks center Evan Eschmeyer, who played with Marbury for two
years in New Jersey, "and a lot of times the 6'10" guy loses the
battle because Steph is so powerful." Imagine the difficulties
for the Spurs' Tony Parker, who gives up nearly 30 pounds to
Marbury: In their regular-season matchups Marbury dominated
Parker in scoring (32.5 points per game to 10.3), assists (8.8
to 5.0) and shooting percentage (53.8 to 29.2).

While Marbury was pouring in 58 points on 40.0% shooting in the
first two games of the series, Parker had only nine on 15.0%. In
Game 2 Speedy Claxton (10 points), took over for the foul-plagued
Parker, who looked worn out trying to stop Marbury. "But then I
say to myself, He's a competitive kid, he's 20 years old, he
should be able to play all day long," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich
says. "Plus he has no choice."

San Antonio will need a herculean effort by Tim Duncan against
the Suns' constant double teaming. On Monday, with the Spurs
down 68-63, Duncan scored seven of their next 10 points, giving
them the lead for good with 5:27 remaining. Still, Duncan had
only 39 points in the first two games, and those numbers might
be hard to improve upon with David Robinson listed as
day-to-day after suffering a cartilage tear of the left medial
meniscus at the end of Game 1.

If San Antonio can escape the first round, the Spurs know that
the West's other powers--the Kings, Lakers and Mavericks--don't
have point guards capable of roughing up Parker. Nor will any of
those opponents be as successful at doubling Duncan as Phoenix
has been so far. And when Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and Penny
Hardaway--each of them 6'7"--collapse on him, their quickness and
long arms allow them to contest the jump shots that come when
Duncan kicks the ball back outside. "The thing nobody's talking
about with the Suns is that they led the league in defensive
three-point percentage, and it's because they're so tall and
athletic on the perimeter," Popovich says, noting that San
Antonio was a woeful 23.1% from the three-point line against
Phoenix during the season and shot 21.3% from the arc in the
first two games of this series.

The Spurs can only hope to improve those numbers in the second
round--if they get there.

COLOR PHOTO: MATTHEW STOCKMAN/GETTY IMAGES The rangy Suns can swarm Duncan and still guard the perimeter.

around the Rim

Before the Mavericks' first game with Portland, the focus in
Dallas was on Michael Finley's return from a strained left
hamstring. But the real concern is over Steve Nash, who has
battled a sore right hip since December. "I had a setback before
the game while I was stretching," says Nash, who shot 3 for 11
for 10 points in last Saturday's 96-86 win. "It's been really
painful for a long time."...Last season the Lakers held
opponents to an NBA-low 42.4% from the field, but this year Los
Angeles was 17th in the league in that category, at 44.3%. During
the Lakers' season-ending 31-9 run, opponents shot slightly
better--44.7%. Not since the 1995-96 Bulls (44.8%) has a team won
the championship with a worse defense.

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