SAN ANTONIO -- It was easy to dismiss all of that Spurs-are-dirty talk as the usual playoff rhetoric that bubbles up when you have three off days between games.
Spurs and Suns get in contact
It seemed easy, anyway, until these Western Conference heavyweights started playing again.
In what has to rank as a surprise -- as well as a development that's bound to help San Antonio a lot more than Phoenix -- the NBA's ultimate contrast in styles is spilling over with ... physicality on both sides?
"It's a contact sport," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "Playoffs are physical. End of story."
Don't count on it, Pop. Not after a wild Game 3 in which the hardest foul was delivered by a guy named Amare Stoudemire, followed up by Manu Ginobili getting raked in the eye. The game ended with the Suns convinced -- particularly by a dubious knee from Bruce Bowen into Steve Nash -- that they were roughed up worse.
Yet all of that only brings us back to the notion that San Antonio, having grinded out a 108-101 victory Saturday night to take a 2-1 series lead, is clearly more comfortable in these conditions than Phoenix.
You could sense that beforehand when Popovich, asked yet again about Stoudemire's claims that Bowen and Ginobili are dirty players, jokingly played along, saying: "We're right up there with the Raiders and the old Pistons, no doubt about that."
You could sense it even more afterward when Tim Duncan scoffed at the idea that things got excessively rough on the court -- "Did you see the last series?" Duncan said with a hearty laugh -- and when Suns coach Mike D'Antoni crumpled up a box score and stormed off the interview dais when asked about all the contact.
Said D'Antoni: "If that's the way everyone wants it, we'll play that way, too."
Even if you agree with the implication there that the officiating leaves the Suns little alternative for Monday's Game 4, you still have to ask: Can they win that way?
The Suns appeared to play with a harder-than-usual edge in this one, predictably starting with Stoudemire. You knew you'd see aggression from Amare after he loudly accused Bowen of intentionally kicking him in Game 2. Stoudemire's aggressive approach was evident midway through the first quarter when he met a driving Michael Finley with a pretty decent crack.
The hit floored Finley, but the chants of "Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!" didn't seem to ruffle Stoudemire. Nor did he ever acknowledge the fan in the lower bowl toting the "Stoude Whiner" sign.
"The crowd wasn't a factor," he said.
His trouble was harnessing the aggression. Then foul trouble.
Stoudemire had two with 4:41 to go in the opening quarter, picked up his third just 35 seconds into the second half and had to retreat to the bench after only 50 more seconds when D'Antoni gambled and left him in, only for Stoudemire to plow through Fabricio Oberto at the for a charge.
Stoudemire also collected his fifth foul just 19 seconds into the fourth quarter, arriving late on a weak-side challenge to a Duncan dunk attempt in a virtual replay of foul No. 3. As a result, Stoudemire wound up logging only 20 minutes and 38 seconds of court time, making you wonder what might have been since he still found time to score 21 points.
Yet Stoudemire's long stretches on the bench were fatal, with Steve Nash also missing his first nine shots. In the most uncharacteristic sequence, Nash bounced one of his trademark lefty skip passes out of bounds, saw scoop layups with each hand bounce in and out and carried more missed free throws (1) than baskets (0) in his stat line until hitting his first jumper with five minutes to play in the third.
"I can't explain it," said Nash, who rallied to finish with 16 points and 11 assists. "It just wasn't my night."
The evening's many skirmishes, not surprisingly, made it more of a San Antonio game, with the Spurs also helping themselves with strong finishes to the second and third quarters.
A second look at the aggressive post defense of Kurt Thomas didn't prove nearly so troublesome for Duncan, whose five missed free throws couldn't spoil a 33-point, 19-rebound masterpiece.
Ginobili, meanwhile, reacted to Shawn Marion's unintentional swipe as he usually does, ignoring the resulting discoloration and swelling of his left eye to finally join the series by scoring 10 points in the final 1:58 of the third, bumping the hosts' lead to 80-72.
"It really helped me because I got upset," Ginobili admitted, "and I started attacking the rim even harder."
He wasn't alone, either.
Duncan, who by his standards has been loquacious in this series, confessed that Stoudemire's comments did help the Spurs play "with a little chip on our shoulder," in spite of pregame claims that they wouldn't.
The loud, borderline taunting chortle from Duncan about how much more physical San Antonio's series with Denver was an even stronger statement.
Now it is time to see if the Suns really intend to swing back harder. Or if, after cooling off, they can find a way to hit back with their best weapon.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Ronald Martinez//Getty Images
For the second straight game, Bruce Bowen made himself felt. In Game 3, he kneed Steve Nash in a sensitive spot, getting an offensive foul and sending the Suns point guard to the floor in pain.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There was plenty of sizzle to sell in the wake of the Nets' re-entry into their semifinal series with the Cavs on Saturday.
Jason Kidd had another of his always popular triple-doubles, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson were stuffing home dunks as the Nets running game revved up, and all that endless talk about how New Jersey can't rebound was squashed -- all of it fun to rehash, rewatch and digest.
Yet perhaps the real reason the Nets won Game 3, 96-85, and may still have a chance at upsetting the Cavs is a less-hyped enterprise: defense.
Overall, the Nets have played exceptionally without the ball in all three games -- the Cavs are shooting just 42 percent -- but it was crystallized in the fourth quarter Saturday.
As the Cavs climbed from 15 points down to within four with nine minutes to play, often the perfect script to score a road win, the Nets knocked them out with a streak of shutdown defense.
After cutting the Nets' sizeable lead, the Cavs scored just once in their next 12 possessions, taking only one shot in the paint as the Nets packed the middle and tilted toward LeBron James. The Cavs settled for jumpers, Zydrunas Ilgauskas saying at times "it seemed like they had seven guys on the court."
James was held to a career playoff low of 18 points on 5-of-16 shooting. Although it's easy to focus on that "5" and say the Nets succeeded, it was actually the "16" that was more impressive. During the playoffs James had been averaging 21 shots a game plus seven shooting fouls. He only got three shooting fouls in Game 3 as the Nets forced him the give the ball away time and time again. It was a contrast to Game 2, when James demanded the ball and attacked often in a commanding performance.
James distributed the ball well, picking up 12 assists, but the result was Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden taking the bulk of the Cavs' shots, which is exactly what Jersey wants.
-- Brian Windhorst from Continental Airlines Arena
An excerpt from David Thorpe's Game 4 forecast:
This series is all about Chicago's offense. The Bulls know they cannot win a game while scoring just 74 points (30 in the second half).
Scott Skiles is now forced to think of any way possible to get his team 90-plus points for the first time in the series. To do this, look for more transition and secondary shots before Detroit can get settled into its defense. The fact that this series is, for the most part, over, should allow the Bulls to settle down their nerves and just go play. So we should expect to see better shooting, finally, by the Bulls' perimeter players.
In Game 4, the Bulls have little chance unless they can combine tremendous passion with excellent execution and shooting, something they haven't been able to do yet.
Ronald Martinez//Getty Images
The Spurs' defense was everywhere on Saturday, contesting everything, as on this dunk attempt by Shawn Marion.
Quote of the Day:
-- Royce Webb
The Nets' three stars -- Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson and Jason Kidd -- each finished with 23 points in New Jersey's 96-85 win over the Cavaliers.
So, has there ever before been an NBA playoff game in which at least three players shared a team's scoring lead with as many as 23 points apiece?
Answer: It's happened only twice previously.
In 1989, Tom Chambers, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle shared the team lead with 24 points in Phoenix' second-round win over Golden State.
Back in the 1971 Western Conference finals, four Lakers scored 24 points apiece in a 118-107 win over Milwaukee: Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich, Happy Hairston and, of all people, Pat Riley!
Tim Duncan scored 33 points and collected 19 rebounds in the Spurs' 108-101 win over the Suns.
It was Duncan's sixth consecutive playoff game with at least 20 points and double-digit rebounds.
Only once before in his postseason career has he had such a streak: seven straight 20-and-10 games in the 2003 playoffs.
-- Elias Sports Bureau
Here's an excerpt of Jeff Weltman's preview of Game 4 of the Warriors-Jazz series:
Utah has shown they are comfortable playing fast, but we have often noted that there is a fine line between playing fast and playing into Golden State's hands.
Game 3 highlighted the difference. Utah must recognize when a layup, short rhythm J or early post is not there in transition and otherwise set up and get the ball to Boozer.
Golden State did an excellent job of getting the ball out of Boozer's hands -- when he did catch it -- limiting him to a ridiculous 10 field-goal attempts in 40 minutes.
The Warriors ran multiple defenders at Boozer in Game 3. We should look for the Jazz to counter this with better execution, more pick-and-roll action to get Boozer the ball with the defense on the move, and more quick-hit post-ups.
Utah also was sluggish in defensive transition, succumbing to the tempo and simply not getting back as the Warriors ran en masse for easy looks.
While Golden State shot a great 15-for-32 from 3-point range, it must be noted that they took care of their offensive work early -- the shots they were generating were largely clean, rhythm looks in transition or easy draw-and-kick looks in the half court, mostly set up by Davis.
Utah has its work cut out heading into the next game if it is to steal one in Golden State.
Most notably, they must execute better, which includes taking better care of the ball and getting the ball to Boozer -- even if only to attract multiple defenders and play off him.
Matching Golden State's intensity in their building these days is a tall task, but it is what Utah must do, especially as it relates to defensive transition and beating the Warriors to spots in rotations at both ends.