- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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SAN ANTONIO -- A moment of silence, please, on the premature death of the best playoff series NBA school principal David Stern -- and the rest of us -- will see anytime soon.
The hoops drama that was the San Antonio Spurs vs. the Phoenix Suns should have lasted seven games. And if Maximum Dave and his curiously reasoned form of punishment hadn't made an appearance this past week, we might be counting the nanoseconds until Sunday's series finale between the two best and most compelling teams in the league.
Instead -- and this is going to come out the wrong way -- we get Game 1 of the Western Conference finals with the Utah Jazz. Nothing wrong with that, except that the Spurs-Suns got jobbed. We all did. In fact, I could have watched these two teams play a best-of-17 series.
But Stern's decision to suspend the Suns' Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for the pivotal Game 5 compromised the integrity of a series that deserved better than kneejerk justice. The Spurs beat the roster-challenged Suns that night in Phoenix, and then advanced to the conference finals with Friday evening's 114-106 victory.
To come this far and put this much into a season and for us to be without two key guys for Game 5 for nothing we instigated -- and for not either one of them having a malicious tone in their offense -- will forever haunt us."
-- Steve Nash
The Spurs were the better team Friday, but thanks to Stern, we'll never truly know if they were the better team for the series. This isn't a rip on the Spurs. They did what they had to do, and they did it with cool, heartless efficiency. But this will be forever known as the What-If Series.
What if Robert Horry hadn't temporarily lost his mind, channeled the Hanson Brothers, and thumped Suns' guard Steve Nash into the scorer's table during the waning moments of Game 4? What if Stoudemire and Diaw hadn't left the bench area? What if Stern hadn't turned the series upside down when he suspended Stoudemire and Diaw for one game and Horry for two?
It was a dumb decision then. It's a dumb decision now. It will remain a dumb decision no matter how many times Stern tries to justify it.
"I can sit up here and complain about it after the fact... I guess cry about it after the fact," said Nash. "But it's tough not to just think forever what would have happened if this stupid rule didn't get in the way of this series. There's no guarantees of anything, but to come this far and put this much into a season and for us to be without two key guys for Game 5 for nothing we instigated -- and for not either one of them having a malicious tone in their offense -- will forever haunt us. But I don't want to cry about it after the fact. The Spurs played great."
The Spurs did play great. They led by 20 points early in the fourth quarter. They kept the Suns from stepping on the clutch and shifting their offense into third or fourth gear.
"Frankly, I'm going to try to figure out how we did this," said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich.
Manu Ginobili filled up the boxscore with 33 ponts, 11 rebounds, six assists, four steals and four three-pointers. Tony Parker had 30 points. Tim Duncan added 24 points, 13 rebounds, nine blocked shots and, when double teamed, always managed to find an open teammate.
And then there was Bruce Bowen, who likely will have to miss Sunday's game after undergoing surgery to remove himself from Nash's hip. A clearly frustrated Nash finished with 18 points, but he only had one field goal through the first three quarters.
"He can't be Superman every night," said Suns coach Mike D'Antoni.
Imagine spending an entire series running into open car doors. That's what Bowen did, caroming off a thousand different screens and picks set for Nash. Sure, Bowen is physical, maybe borderline chippy, but it was a matchup worth staring at.
"Bruce had the toughest job on the team, without a doubt," said Popovich. "I don't know how he does it."
If there was such a thing as a basketball coroner, he would have said the game's time of death came at exactly with 5:23 remaining in the third quarter. That's when Bowen found his usual spot on the baseline, just inches behind the three-point line, and hit a trey that stretched the Spurs' tiny lead to 66-61. Then Ginobili added another three-pointer with 4:58 and that was that.
"There was a stretch where they couldn't miss," said D'Antoni.
It didn't help that the Suns' Raja Bell decided to foul everybody except the Spurs' Silver Dancers. Or that Leandro Barbosa forgot how to make a three pointer (0-5 Friday, 0 for his last 12 attempts). And yet, the Suns actually whittled the Spurs' lead down to five.
But by then, there were only 34 seconds remaining and San Antonio kept making free throws. Meanwhile, I'll have permanent ear damage from the sound of Spurs' fans whacking those thundersticks as the seconds ticked down.
Remember Stoudemire? He scored 38 points and added 12 rebounds in the loss. You think he might have made a difference in Game 5?
This is why it would have been fitting to see the series go seven games. Then Stern's decision would have been sort of rendered moot. America would have rejoiced.
"Absolutely I can understand why people would want to see it go one more," said Duncan. "You also have to understand why we didn't want to see it go one more."
My point exactly.
Of course, Nash is right when he says there are no guarantees. Maybe the Spurs win this thing in six even if Stoudemire had played last Wednesday in Phoenix -- but I doubt it.
"We'll never know," said Nash.
And that's the shame of it all.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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