SAN ANTONIO -- This was believed to be the cleanest shot for Steve Nash and these Phoenix Suns. This was supposed to be their best chance to scale what even Nash refers to as a "mountain."
Last chance for these Suns?
Mount Duncan, specifically.
It was a second-round series, so Nash would be a little fresher. It came with home-court advantage, too. It even came with a bonus: Dallas had stunningly been sent home already, removing one more Texas-sized obstacle from the Suns' path to the NBA Finals.
It's easy to forget some of those things after Nash's bloody nose in Game 1, followed by the hammer blow of suspensions that barred Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw from Game 5, but the Suns did have some stuff working in their favor in this showdown with the San Antonio Spurs.
Just not enough stuff. The Suns rallied gamely Friday night after falling behind by 20 points but ultimately couldn't avoid the 114-106 defeat in Game 6 that ended their season, thereby invalidating that Best Chance Theory and replacing it with a question.
As in: Was this the last chance for the Suns, as presently constituted, to try to get out of the West?
"I had a feeling that was coming," Suns forward Shawn Marion said, sitting patiently at his locker for the inevitable.
Marion was ready for that one because he's been hearing the rumblings all season. He's well aware of the leaguewide expectation that the Suns -- privately unsure that the Nash-Stoudemire-Marion triumvirate can go any farther -- would pursue major changes if the championship eluded them again.
How major? Packaging Marion with the lottery pick they'll inherit from Atlanta on Tuesday -- unless the Hawks' pick falls in the top three -- to pursue, say, Kevin Durant is one significant option.
Packaging that pick and Stoudemire to chase a veteran star like Minnesota's Kevin Garnett is even more major . . . although Stoudemire emphatically made his case to stay by returning from exile with a tidy 38-point, 12-rebound, four-block reminder of his potential.
"That has nothing to do with me," Marion said of possible trades. "I have no control over that. I just do what I do."
In this series, that meant chasing Tony Parker most of the time, guarding Tim Duncan in spots and taking a turn at all five positions over the course of six games. Game 6 was hardly a glorious finish for Marion, with 11 points and 11 boards compared to Parker's 21 points by halftime and 30 overall. Yet it was also tough to single him out for culpability given all the defensive scrambling Phoenix was doing to cope with Duncan and a lethal Manu Ginobili.
Which gives a glimpse into the Suns' dilemma. Had they lost this series in a more straightforward manner, going the shake-up route would be so much easier. But how do you factor in the Game 5 they had to play short-handed and what that did to their chances? Or the Game 4 breakthrough here?
The Suns might be forced to part with a big gun like Marion purely for luxury-tax relief. Yet expensive as it would be to keep this team together, with the club's payroll scheduled to rise well into tax territory next season, shipping out a star of Marion's stature and versatility won't be easy after the steps Phoenix took in this series.
For all the claims that the Spurs' image has changed, perhaps so did Phoenix's. The Suns spoke openly of the psychological hold San Antonio had on them -- an admission even more unorthodox than trying to win in the playoffs with offense -- but then appeared to break through that barrier with the road win that made it 2-2.
"What can I say?" Nash offered afterward, finally spilling the frustration he had held in since Stoudemire and Diaw were suspended.
"Part of me, as a sportsman, wants to give [San Antonio] credit, but I don't know what the outcome would have been if we went home tied with a full team [for Game 5]."
You have to give the Spurs considerable credit, actually.
Leandro Barbosa might have won the league's Sixth Man Award, but Ginobili was convincingly the sixth man of the series, capped by a 33-point, 11-rebound, six-assist masterpiece in the clincher. The Suns were the league's best 3-point shooting team during the regular season, but San Antonio made more triples (44-37) when it mattered. Bruce Bowen and his double-team helpers, meanwhile, kept banging on the Phoenix quarterback so hard that Nash, according to D'Antoni, is covered in bruises that look "like a lot of gnats have been biting on him."
Entering the fourth quarter, shadowed so closely around every corner that passing was pretty much his only option, Nash had one basket to Jacque Vaughn's two. Of course, Nash promptly reeled off 15 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter on 6-for-6 shooting -- matching the 15 scored in the period by Stoudemire in an impressive, taunting farewell to Amare's I-Beat-Microfracture season -- but the Spurs just had too much.
How much? Eleven points in the fourth from Michael Finley, who didn't score in the first three quarters, and Duncan falling just shy of a triple-double for the ages with 24 points, 13 boards and nine blocks.
"It's been a tough year on a lot of fronts," D'Antoni said. "We'll fix 'em.
"We're going to tweak some things, get better, get deeper if that's what it takes. It's going to be a great summer."
Said Marion: "You can say we need this or need that, but I still think we can beat this team."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Manu Ginobili is here to pump you up, dropping 33 points on the Suns in Game 6. Talk about a balanced attack: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili each made 11 field goals in the win.
Several top draft prospects are working out in Los Angeles, including Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer of Florida and homegrown star Nick Young of USC.
But for the past four days in L.A., as I traveled from gym to gym, the chatter wasn't about two Gators or a Trojan.
Yi Jianlian, who has been living in L.A. for the past month, has been making the rounds and earning awe and respect everywhere he goes.
"Have you seen the Yi kid yet?" Young's trainer Don MacLean said after I watched him work out Young and Jason Smith on Saturday. "That kid was amazing."
"The dude can play," Young chimed in. Then, with a wide grin, he proudly declared he had dunked on Yi in a workout. "When you see him play, you'll know how impressive that is."
Different gym, same buzz.
At the Home Depot Center, trainer Joe Abunassar interrupted a discussion of the players he's training to say, "Wait until you see Yi. There isn't a drill I could come up with that Yi couldn't excel at."
After getting chewed up by the Nets and their double teams and zones in a Game 5 loss back in Cleveland on Wednesday, James eschewed his normal approach of using the first quarter to set up his teammates. Instead of being the passive and passing LeBron, the one so often cracked by observers, he was a aggressive and primal LeBron, using his size and skill to overpower the unsuspecting Nets.
Once he jump stopped, bounced to the left and banked one in. Another time he posted up Jason Kidd, spun quickly and tossed in a shot from the block. Then he drove, flung his body left to create space and threw in a one-handed shot as he was falling down.
When the quarter broke, he had 14 points and nine foul shot attempts, the Nets only resort was to foul.
The Cavs were on their way to a 22-point lead, putting the Nets in a deep hole that even a high-energy and valiant second-half comeback couldn't overcome. It was purely shock and awe, James at his best.
AP Photo/Mel Evans
Jason Kidd, it's pretty clear you were driven (19 points, 12 rebounds) in the loss to Cleveland. As for that guy behind you ...
Quote of the Day:
-- Andrew Ayres
After LeBron James went to the bench with his fourth foul midway through the third quarter and Cleveland called a timeout to regroup, some crazed dude from Jersey in a straw fedora grabbed a microphone and began shouting hoarsely, "Get up! Get up!" at the Nets' fans, continuing with a minute-long rant. Turned out to be actor Bruce Willis, who grew up in Penns Grove, perhaps channeling his Die Hard/Pulp Fiction personas. The crowd responded with its loudest cheers of the night and so did the Nets, trimming a 13-point deficit to one by the end of the period.
• It's been said umpteen times in umpteen places, but it's astonishing how much damage James can do when he attacks the paint. So astonishing that he should be fined every time he takes his iffy step-back jumper without being forced into it. He was at his aggressive best in the first quarter and not only scored 14 points -- one less than the entire Nets' team -- but drew fouls from five different Nets players. As one New Jersey player said, "Every time he took that step-back, I said, 'Thank you.' Because there's no way to slow him down when he doesn't."
• If Vince Carter was angling to opt out of the last year of his current deal -- worth $16.36 million -- to test the market and possibly land another fat long-term contract, it didn't show. If Jason Kidd was trying to show he'll be a "young 35" next season and worth, say, a can't-refuse trade offer by Dallas, he couldn't have done more.
Carter's presence was barely felt in an 11-point, five-rebound, five-turnover effort. Kidd inspired New Jersey's comeback from a 15-point halftime deficit with 12 of his 19 points, including a personal 6-0 run to open the period, but he was running on fumes after that. "I was just hoping that somebody would pick it up where I left off," he said. "But unfortunately didn't happen." Carter's most egregious act of passivity in a scoreless fourth quarter was when he had Damon Jones posted up and turned the ball over trying to slip a pass through traffic to Mikki Moore.
Kidd finished the postseason as the second player ever to average a triple-double for the entire run (14.6 points, 10.9 rebounds and 10.9 assists) and the first to do it for more than one series. Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double (28.8 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) for Milwaukee in 1962, but the Bucks never made it out of the first round, losing in four games to Detroit.
-- Ric Bucher in East Rutherford, N.J.
A.T.T.A.C.K. Athletics founder Tim Grover has trained four of the 50 greatest players in the history of the NBA -- Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, and most famously, Michael Jordan.
Over the past few years he specialized in taking young athletic players without a clearly defined position, like Dwyane Wade and Andre Iguodala, and helping them find a fit between their skills and the NBA.
This year, Grover has taken on the challenge with three top prospects who all have athleticism and skill -- but do they have a NBA position?
That's the question surrounding Kansas forward Julian Wright, Georgia Tech forward Thaddeus Young and Wisconsin forward Alando Tucker. .
I spent Thursday and Friday in Grover's gym in Chicago looking for answers as they, along with several other prospects like North Carolina's Reyshawn Terry, Providence's Herbert Hill and Arizona's Mustafa Shakur prepared for the 2007 NBA draft.
Manu Ginobili came off the bench to score 33 points and grab 11 rebounds in the Spurs' series-clinching win over the Suns. The last player with a 30/10 (points/rebounds) game off the bench in the playoffs was Kevin McHale in a double-overtime loss in 1993 (30 points, 10 rebounds). The last player to do it in a non-overtime game was Mitch Kupchak for the Washington Bullets in 1977 (32 points, 16 rebounds).