- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
This time? They merely flirted with the collapse.
The Suns have finally managed to start a series with San Antonio by dodging the usual calamitous ending, holding on for a thrilling 111-102 triumph Monday night that had coach Alvin Gentry unable to hide his relief as he departed the interview room.
"It's going to be a long series," Gentry said.
Yet you would also have to say, based on this evidence, that it's going to be a vintage Suns-Spurs series on the drama scale, despite the repeated pleas from Gentry and other Phoenix types that the Suns' painful playoff history with these guys should be ignored, since so many Suns are new to the tension these teams generate.
Try telling that to the desert dwellers who nervously filed out of US Airways Center. A familiar feeling of dread, bordering on inevitability, spread through the building when the Spurs quickly erased double-digit deficits to start the third quarter and the fourth, with the latter run causing particular consternation because Steve Nash and Jason Richardson had been parked on the bench for too long, sitting for nearly six minutes to start the final quarter.
You also saw how much it meant to the locals when -- after San Antonio rose from being down 94-80 to within 94-93 -- Nash, Richardson and Amare Stoudemire drove the lead back up to a safe 103-95. The response led to a wave straight out of the 1980s from a sellout crowd of 18,422, suggesting that it's common knowledge around here that the Spurs had won all three previous Game 1s against the Suns in the Nash era, two of them here in Phoenix.
"Our fans deserved it," Nash said of the fourth-quarter escape, offering up the closest thing to a public acknowledgment that his brilliant 33 points and 10 assists were driven by bad memories.
As the 36-year-old conscience of a team that -- unlike those title-chasing Suns teams of yore -- has already exceeded every reasonable preseason expectation by getting this far, Nash keeps insisting that he was far more concerned about the response of his sore hip than in realizing any sort of vengeance for past Spurs-inflicted pain.
So you can understand, if you buy that claim, why it pleased him so much to zoom past George Hill for four layups in the first 3:12 and ring up 17 points in the first quarter alone. In the Game 6 clincher against Portland, by comparison, Nash was admittedly "dragging [his] leg around."
Nash ultimately found unavoidable reminders from media pests about that bloody clash of heads with Tony Parker (2007) or the unspeakable pain of Duncan forcing overtime with a rare triple (2008) almost bearable after the damage he inflicted, with considerable help from Richardson (27 points) and Stoudemire (23 points and 13 boards).
"We haven't really done anything yet," Nash insisted, sticking to a respect-the-Spurs script that Team Duncan has certainly earned.
Nash was being more humble than he needed to be on this night, though. His attack-the-rim approach not only gave the new Suns a vital foothold against the old masters, but likewise discombobulated Hill, who unexpectedly emerged as the Spurs' most dependable player in the Dallas series.
"I wouldn't disagree with what you just said," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich conceded about the impact of Nash's success on Hill's night.
Which explains why Hill -- after collecting three fouls in the first half -- found himself on the bench to start the third quarter, losing his starting spot to Parker (26 points). Hill also wound up shooting 0-for-5 on 3s after all those corner daggers he drained against the Mavs.
Popovich wouldn't say whether Hill would be back in the starting lineup for Wednesday's Game 2, but this much is clear: Phoenix now has a blueprint for the three wins it still needs to finally hold off San Antonio for an entire series.
Shut down the Spurs' complementary players.
"Usually when they add a fourth guy to the mix," Gentry said, "it makes them really tough to beat."
There was no fourth Spur at the start of the teams' fourth postseason encounter in six years. Ginobili (27 points), Duncan (20 points and 11 boards) and Parker combined for 73 points to 83 points for the Suns' star trio -- but no one else in black and silver scored more than Hill's nine.
"They're a team with a great pedigree that knows how to come back in a series," Stoudemire said, toting his own 0-4 record in playoff matchups with the Spurs since a six-game exit in the first round as a rookie in 2003.
"You can't get too excited."
Not unless this Richardson shows up three more times -- Phoenix is 30-4 this season when J-Rich scores at least 20 -- and Nash can stay this spry as the series moves to an every-other-day format until a two-day break before a potential Game 7.
"I think Steve controlled the game too doggone much," Popovich said, when asked to explain why the Spurs couldn't climb all the way out of those big holes like usual.
Said Nash: "It felt great to get out there and actually feel like I could do something."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
6dEthan Sherwood Strauss
6dMatt Walks, ESPN.com