PHOENIX -- The promotion of Kurt Thomas to the starting lineup wasn't going to fix everything for the desperate Phoenix Suns. It's never that simple against San Antonio.
Thomas gives Suns a big boost
But the confidence Steve Nash says they've been lacking?
Not as much of a problem when Thomas is on the floor.
Even against the team that torments Phoenix like no other -- and even though he was the eighth man in a seven-man playoff rotation until Tuesday night -- Thomas was unwavering in his belief that he could be a defensive difference in the game that one member of the Suns described beforehand as "pretty much our whole season."
"I can guard anybody," Thomas says.
It's a statement you can certainly challenge, since Thomas is constantly struggling to get playing time from a coach who likes his D but likes to run the ball more. Yet his cockiness is intact at 34 and Thomas duly delivered the sort of swagger Nash was looking for when he publicly questioned his teammates' willingness to scrap with the Spurs after Game 1.
"He's a vet who's been to the Finals," Nash said. "He's a professional. He knows the tricks of the trade [and] the nuances. He understands the game. [He] has a great demeanor and a toughness to him.
"Tim is going to get the better of almost everybody, but when you can throw a guy like Kurt down there . . . it really makes the game a lot easier for us."
It really did in a 101-81 rout that pulled Phoenix even in this second-round showdown at 1-1, even on a night when the relationship between the Tim in question and his beloved backboard never looked stronger.
Tim Duncan indeed looked sensational at times, smooching home a variety of bank shots in totaling 29 points, including San Antonio's first 15 in the third quarter. But Thomas made Duncan make tough shots to get his points, never got discouraged when Duncan did score and was resting on the bench, to be fair, during Duncan's most impressive seven-point flurry in the third.
Thomas also chipped in a handy 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting and generally seemed to infuse the Suns with a harder edge that freed up teammates to lock in and record even bigger defensive successes at other key spots.
Like . . .
Shawn Marion, who club insiders say was the primary target of Nash's rant about Phoenix not playing hard enough in the opener, responded by neutralizing Suns killer Tony Parker. The Frenchman managed just 13 points after shredding Phoenix for 32 on Sunday.
Raja Bell, meanwhile, illustrated why Suns coach Mike D'Antoni wants to keep him right where he is -- instead of switching Bell onto Parker -- by helping hold Manu Ginobili to a meager six points.
"I thought we were supposed to be the defensive team," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, "but they made us look like novices."
Nash's view: "I think, in particular, Shawn Marion was outstanding."
Thomas seconded that, calling Marion's hounding of Parker "the key," but this was likewise his most significant moment as a Sun.
The former Knicks bruiser was actually imported to Phoenix before last season specifically to bang on Duncan, only to fade in and out of D'Antoni's rotation over concerns that the plodding Thomas slows the Suns' offense down.
Yet the opposite was true in Game 2. Amare Stoudemire might have erred when he spilled details of the forthcoming lineup switch to the media on Monday -- "I was stunned," D'Antoni said, "but I wasn't mad" -- but it certainly helped his offense to be relieved of primary Duncan duties. Stoudemire ended the Suns' dunk drought with a couple slams in the second quarter, scored 15 points of his own in the third and added six more in the decisive fourth to finish with 27 points as Phoenix finally began to pull away.
Nash, meanwhile, quietly rung up 20 points and 16 assists and also made two of the Suns' biggest defensive plays, sticking his bandaged nose in to draw two second-quarter charges on Duncan that put San Antonio's only functioning offensive weapon in foul trouble.
Despondent as he was for much of the previous two days, Nash couldn't stifle a smile by night's end. Not after the hosts overcame a flurry of squandered good looks in the opening period to hit back with the three best quarters this group has ever played against San Antonio. Not with Suns owner Robert Sarver passing out sympathy bandages before the game for courtside fans to wear on their noses. Not with boyhood hero Wayne Gretzky in attendance, too.
"I think our confidence did grow," Nash said. "I think this [Spurs] team has had a psychological hold on us . . . so I think it's important for us to break through that tonight.
""Tonight was a lot closer to what we need and in San Antonio it's going to have to be even more. It's probably good for us psychologically to know that we're capable of doing it. It'll give us some good feelings going down to San Antonio."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Nathaniel S. Butler/ Getty Images
LeBron James (36 points, 12 assists) gave his team much more than Vince Carter (26 points on 10-for-26 shooting) in Game 2.
Darnell (Dallas, TX): Mr. Stein, why don't the Mavericks get Paul Pierce to team with Dirk? the Celtics aren't going anywhere with him and Dallas would have a guy that could take over the game.
Marc Stein: A month ago, I would have scoffed. But now? I think Mavs have to go in a totally different direction. Jermaine. Ray Allen. Pierce. I'm sure Jason Kidd is the first choice on this list because the Mavs have pursued him in trades before since Nash left. Any big name who is made available, Dallas has to explore the possibility.
But here's the problem. Even in a three-way trade, they'll have to find someone willing to take on Jason Terry's contract . . . on the assumption that no one will touch Dampier's contract. It's not going to be easy.
Here's what I'm hearing about Jeff Van Gundy's possible imminent breakup with the Houston Rockets: Van Gundy has an early termination option (ETO) in his contract, and he must first tell the Rockets whether he wants to exercise it, after which they can tell him whether they want him back.
An ETO is not the same as an option for a fourth year. It's an option to terminate, not to extend. I'd call it an option to quit, but Van Gundy is sensitive about that word.
When he resigned suddenly from the New York Knicks 19 games into the 2000-01 season, almost no one (Kevin Kernan of the New York Post and ESPN's Cold Pizza was one exception) in the New York media used the word "quit." Van Gundy himself had something to do with that, offering a plausible explanation that he had lost his focus and his will to coach and had been thinking of resigning for weeks, only to be talked out of it by then-team president Scott Layden.
Suns fans came out in support of their hero with the busted up schnozz during Tuesday's Game 2.
Quote of the Day:
-- Andrew Ayres
CLEVELAND -- With just under six minutes to play Tuesday night as the Nets and Cavs headed to their benches for a television timeout, LeBron James stopped his head coach.
"He turned to me and said he wanted the ball because he was going to win it for us," Cavs coach Mike Brown said. "I said, "What if they play zone?" He said he didn't care."
So Brown went into the huddle and informed the team they would be running one play and one play only from that moment on. It was a mid-post isolation set for James on the left wing. Yes, the Nets did play zone. No, James didn't care.
He went left, down the baseline for a layup. He went into the middle, drawing all five Nets defenders, and kicked to Larry Hughes for a 3-pointer. He stood still and fired a pass to Drew Gooden for a clear dunk. Then, with just 90 seconds remaining, James went right and turned the corner. By the time he pulled up nine feet from the hoop and clinched the game, he'd challenged four Nets on the play.
"He was a man tonight," Brown said.
James' 36 points, 12 of which came in the fourth, and playoff career-high 12 assists were too much for the Nets in the Cavs' 102-92 Game 2 win. That and another night of dominating rebounding have the Cavs up 2-0 in the series. His shortcomings as a superstar and as a leader have been questioned often this season, sometimes with significant evidence and merit. But so far in the postseason he's lived up to the hype. In six games, all wins, James is averaging 28 points, 7.7 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 1.8 steals. The scoring is just a hair above his season average, but everything else is up. Especially the assists, as James continues exploit double teams and collapsing zones. The Nets paid in many ways in Game 2. Not only was their zone often ineffective, it repeatedly put them out of position to defensive rebound, which was already a problem. The Cavs got 19 offensive rebounds to the Nets' three and have 39 in the series. It's why the Nets shot 52 percent as a team and still lost -- the Cavs took 20 more shots in the game -- and why the Cavs put all five starters into double figures.
As for James, who suddenly had a tidy career playoff record of 13-6, he sees the strong play as a continuation of his and the Cavs' overall development.
"There was a point in time when I got here...if it was a close ball game in the fourth quarter, we'd lose," James said. "We've been learning how to take care of business."
-- Brian Windhorst covers the NBA for the Akron Beacon Journal.
With Dallas out of the picture and the Spurs already seizing home-court advantage from the Suns, San Antonio has to be considered an overwhelming favorite right now to win the championship. Consider this: The Spurs played the No. 2 team on this list, Golden State, twice after Baron Davis came back in March. Keep in mind the Warriors are 18-4 in their other games with Davis since then. But against the Spurs they lost twice by a combined total of 50 points.
Not that I needed any convincing after watching the Spurs methodically rip the heart out of a very good Denver team last week, but the numbers back up what I've been thinking since training camp tipped off -- this is San Antonio's tournament to lose. And thus far, the Spurs don't seem inclined to lose it.
Cleveland has won each of its first six games of the 2007 NBA playoffs, joining Detroit as the only two teams to start these playoffs with six straight wins. From 1994 to 2006 six teams started the playoffs with a winning streak of at least six games, only one of those teams made it to the NBA Finals that year. The Lakers won their first 11 games of the 2001 playoffs on their way to the NBA championship. The five teams that failed to reach the Finals: Orlando in 1996 (won first six), Indiana in 1999 (seven), San Antonio in 2004 (six), Indiana in 2004 (six) and Miami in 2005 (eight).