The Champ Is Here

Sorry, Pistons, but the NBA title will be decided in the Western Conference semifinal between the Suns and the Spurs, two teams with more in common than you might think
May 13, 2007

Welcome to the NBAfinals. The league has thoughtfully fast-tracked its premier event to end thedrama a month earlier than usual. Lord knows it's not to beat the heat (or, forthat matter, the Heat, which is already beat), because this potentialchampionship series is being contested in the high-mercury venues of Phoenixand San Antonio. But given the level of play in Sunday's opener between theSuns and the Spurs, it sure seems as if the eventual champion will come out oftheir Western Conference semifinal.

Yes, the DetroitPistons, who steamrollered the Chicago Bulls in the first two games of theEastern semis, going up 2--0 on Monday night, might have something to say aboutit. And, yes, the same theory was proffered last year when San Antonio and theDallas Mavericks--remember them?--hooked up at this juncture in a seven-gameclassic. The Mavericks won, beat the Suns in the next round, then promptlycollapsed against Miami in the Finals.

But both the Spurs,who won Sunday's opener 111--106 at US Airways Center in Phoenix, and the Suns,whose superstar point guard, Steve Nash, spilled more blood in Game 1 thanFloyd Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya did last Saturday night in Las Vegas,have more heart than the Duds from Big D. And though the Pistons, seemingly theclass of the East, are well versed in execution and intensity, both Westernteams have more talent and depth in their toolboxes than Detroit.

Although someanalyzed the series on the basis of tempo--high-octane Phoenix versus dreary,ball-control San Antonio--one of the factors that makes both these teams soformidable is their adaptability. "The Suns have more control and rhyme totheir reason than people think," says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, "andwe run more than people think." Emphasis on the latter. What was mosttroubling to Phoenix about Game 1 is that the triple-digit point totals shouldhave signaled a victory. "We'd rather play in the 90s or even 80s,"says San Antonio forward Tim Duncan, who had a game-high 33 points, "butwe've got a lot of guys who are shooting the ball well, moving the ball well,and the points are going up on the board."

Game 1 featured,among other things: more matchup adjustments than at a swingers convention(6'7" Suns forward Shawn Marion defended 6'2" point guard Tony Parkerone minute and switched onto the 6'11" Duncan the next); a technical foulcalled before a shot was taken in the third quarter (Suns assistant MarcIavaroni got hit for griping about a foul whistled late in the second quarter);and a head-banging collision between Nash and Parker that left the latter onthe floor but, more important, the former on the bench in crunch time.

The game turned onthe aftermath of that collision. After several frantic sideline attempts topatch up Nash's schnoz, he finally left the game with 54 seconds on the clockand Phoenix trailing 106--104. The role of ball handler and decision maker fellto backup Leandro Barbosa, who would brick a three-pointer (he missed six ofhis seven shots in the fourth) and commit a costly away-from-the-ball foul thatgave San Antonio a free throw and possession. By the time Nash, sporting adisgusting bandage saturated with blood, returned with 9.1 seconds remaining,the Suns were down by four, having missed four straight shots. "Some of ushave to be a little hungrier," Nash said after getting the six stitchesthat finally stanched the flow from his nose.

Indeed, it is stillon the Suns, as it was two years ago when they lost to the Spurs in five gamesin the Western final, to prove that they have the toughness and moxie tocompete with a team that has won three titles in the last eight seasons--threemore than Phoenix has won in its 39-year history. But what makes this series sofascinating, San Antonio's championship pedigree notwithstanding, are thesimilarities between two teams that seem so different. Consider:

Self-effacingsuperstars. Duncan would deem his life infinitely more joyful if he never hadto deal with the Fourth Estate. He can be friendly and insightful, but not in aroom full of microphones and cameras. Nash makes all of his dutiful appearancesbut sometimes does so with the joie de vivre of a man being led to hisexecution, as was the case after Game 1. Of course, by that time he had lost acouple pints of blood, had a needle stuck in his nose and had his eyesirritated by Collodion, a liquid adhesive that trainer Aaron Nelson had used onthe bandages he frantically applied to the cut that ran almost the length ofNash's proboscis. (Plus, Nash wasn't all that happy about the final score.)

Defensive dynamos.Neither Spurs forward Bruce Bowen nor Suns swingman Raja Bell were drafted outof college, but both found their way to starting roles on elite teams bybecoming hard-edged defensive specialists. They work out together in Miami inthe summer and find some humor in their reputations as henchmen. "When Ihear some of the bad things people say about Bruce, I can't believe it,"says Bell. "Then again, they say them about me, too." Adds Bowen,"We both know what price we had to pay to get here. It's a bond we sharedeep in our heart."

The Frenchconnection. Parker and Phoenix forward Boris Diaw remain the best of friends,stemming from their days as callow whipping boys for the veterans on France'snational team. They spent 20 minutes talking and laughing at courtside beforethe game, joined by countryman Ronny Turiaf, a Los Angeles Lakers forward.During the game, however, most of the laughs were Parker's--he had 32 points.Diaw (seven points) will have to do a better job of exploiting mismatchesinside throughout the remainder of the series.

Latin loosecannons. San Antonio guard Manu Ginóbili (an Argentine) can be compared withBell in that both are excellent defenders and accomplished floppers, whilePhoenix's Sixth Man Award winner, Barbosa (a Brazilian), can be compared withParker in that both are lightning-fast, shoot-first point guards. But the bestcomparisons for Ginóbili and Barbosa are each other. They come off the benchand immediately supercharge the tempo of the game, either by shootinglong-range jumpers or darting through small spaces and racing pell-mell to thebasket.

Complex andcompetitive coaches. To say that Popovich is a curmudgeon and Mike D'Antoni afraternizer is an oversimplification. D'Antoni got so incensed at a call thatwent against the Suns late in the game that he flung a page of plays thatalmost hit diet guru Jenny Craig, a loyal season-ticket holder. And thoughPopovich can indeed be a terror to the press--a former Air Forcecounterintelligence officer, he hates to be asked to reveal intelligence--he isnever all business. Two days before the game, Popovich huddled with assistantP.J. Carlesimo in the coaches' office at the Spurs' practice facility. Givenhis legendary penchant for preparation, what was the subject: Whether to trapNash at midcourt? To go at center Amaré Stoudemire with a double team from hisblind side? Pop slyly held aloft a book with a familiar maroon cover--Zagat's2007 survey of restaurants in the Phoenix area. "We're mulling our mostimportant pregame decision," he said, "which is where to eat onSaturday night." (They eventually chose T. Cook's, which servesMediterranean food and has an excellent wine list, Popovich's majorconcern.)

An air of civilitysurrounded Game 1, an atmosphere that grew out of the mutual respect thefranchises have for each other. There were Duncan and Suns veteran Kurt Thomassumo wrestling for position down low, then patting each other on the backduring a break in play. There was Nash, unaware that he was soon to suffer aTKO, bending down in concern as Parker lay on the court after their collision,a kinder response than Parker got from teammate Robert Horry, who said,"Get up, that's not even your blood." There was the 36-year-old Horryflashing the briefest of smiles as a Suns fan yelled, after Horry put in one ofhis two key three-pointers, "Hey, Rob, please retire!"

But as Spursforward Michael Finley says, "Game 1 is a feeling-out game, and then thehandshakes and the friendly feelings will disappear." As competitive asGame 1 was, the series is bound to get more intense and the eventual victormore battle-tested. "This feels a little like the Finals because of thelevel of competition we are going against," says Horry, who has sixchampionship rings with three teams. "And I'm sure they feel the same aboutus." The Pistons would no doubt scoff at that notion. But Detroit--orwhichever team comes out of the East--will have to up its play if it wants toprove that this Western series is only a tempting appetizer and not the maincourse of a postseason that, officially at least, still has a long way togo.

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PHOTOPhotographs by John W. McDonoughTIGHTSQUEEZE Stoudemire (sandwiched by Duncan, rear, and Francisco Elson) hasstruggled against the Spurs all season, scoring nearly six points below hisaverage. PHOTOJEFF TOPPING/REUTERS (NASH)POINTMADE Parker (9) got the better of Nash (inset), who suffered a Game 1TKO. PHOTOPhotographs by John W. McDonough[See caption above.] PHOTOGREG NELSONMANUGINÓBILI PHOTOLEANDRO BARBOSA TWENTY-FIVE ILLUSTRATIONS PHOTOGREG NELSONJASON RICHARDSON PHOTOGREG NELSONLEBRON JAMES PHOTODERON WILLIAMS PHOTOCHAUNCEY BILLUPS PHOTOBEN WALLACE PHOTOVINCE CARTER PHOTOPhotographs by John W. McDonoughPACESETTERS
The speed, versatility and three-point shooting of Barnes (22), Davis (5) andJackson has the league on high alert.