- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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SAN ANTONIO -- Tim Duncan was sitting on the corridor floor, with Gregg Popovich standing over him, two unquestioned champions presumably trying to make sense of what had just happened to the team that just last week was being hailed as the most fearsome No. 7 seed in history.
You couldn't get close enough to hear what they were saying. Yet you could safely assume that this was not the way they expected the Phoenix Suns to finally get their vengeance.
The sight of Duncan and Popovich commiserating in a hallway outside the Spurs' locker room was the chilling picture Goran Dragic left in his wake late Friday night, after shredding the San Antonio Spurs like they belonged in his Slovenian league back home. The Suns still have to win one more game to say they've at last beaten Team Duncan in a playoff series for the first time in five tries, but good luck finding someone willing to pick these Spurs to become the first team in NBA history to recover from a 3-0 deficit after the 23-point highlight reel Dragic assembled in the final 12 minutes.
Never in the Duncan era have the Spurs sounded as bewildered in defeat as they sounded after this 110-96 Game 3 pounding, which marked the first time in Pop's 14-season reign that San Antonio surrendered 110 points in three straight games in the postseason.
Never did they imagine missing seven straight free throws in the first half to throw away their early momentum, ultimately blowing all of an 18-point lead and then fading away in crunch time against the speed of a tiny, sub-filled, drive-and-kick lineup ... while Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Jason Richardson led the cheers from the Suns' bench.
Someone asked Duncan, before he made it out to his impromptu meeting with his coach in the hall, how surprised he was by all of this.
"I still am," Duncan said.
Exasperated teammate Manu Ginobili added: "It was kind of embarrassing. ... It's really hard not only because of the fact that we are down 3-0 [but because of] the way they are beating us.
"In the first game, we fouled too much and they [scored] too much in transition. In Game 2, they stopped running but they beat us on offensive rebounds. Tonight we didn't foul them, they didn't beat us on the offensive boards, Amare scored seven points and they killed us anyway. That's the tough part to swallow."
That's actually only one slice of the unsavory stuff the Spurs have to digest. There's more. Lots more.
The short-term problem: Tony Parker, making his first start of the playoffs in this Game 3, landed hard on his shoulder after a second-quarter collision with Stoudemire -- with the hosts still up 16 -- and will undergo an MRI on Saturday to determine his status for Sunday's Game 4.
The long-term issue, meanwhile, is how to proceed roster-wise after the Suns finish the Spurs off, which looms as an inevitability no matter how jittery Suns fans are when it comes to San Antonio, even with a 3-0 cushion.
Owner Peter Holt sanctioned the offseason acquisitions of Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess, pushing his payroll into the $80 million range, because he believed the Duncan-Ginobili-Parker triumvirate was still a title contender if healthy. A six-game dismissal of the Spurs' longtime rivals from Dallas in the first round had finally begun to convince Holt that the investments were worth it, but the grittier-than-ever Suns' ability to grind out wins in the past two games when San Antonio shut down their running game has instead spawned the suggestion that the No. 2-seeded Mavericks would have taken out the aging No. 7 seeds if Dallas coach Rick Carlisle had simply unleashed his Dragic -- rookie guard Rodrigue Beaubois -- as so many Mavs fans lobbied for back in Big D.
Sources with knowledge of the team's thinking say the Spurs are increasingly optimistic about their ability to inject their front line with some new blood by convincing Brazilian forward Tiago Splitter -- whom they drafted in 2007 -- to leave the European game to come to the NBA starting next season. Yet it remains to be seen how aggressive San Antonio feels it'll have to be about reshaping the rest of the roster after Jefferson's season of struggle, with Parker -- unpalatable as it sounds -- ranking as its best trade asset. The Frenchman has only one season left on his contract ($13.5 million) after this season and, according to a recent report in the San Antonio Express-News, has told friends that he's unsure about his future in town after the contract extension recently bestowed upon Ginobili and with second-year guard George Hill capable of playing the same position.
First, though, the Spurs are going to have to get over this thorough humbling at home. Which certainly didn't sound imminent as you listened to various Spurs describe the problems they had dealing with the guard penetration and pick-and-roll success Phoenix manufactured at the start of the decisive fourth quarter with a group of Grant Hill, Jared Dudley, Channing Frye, Leandro Barbosa and Dragic on the floor.
"We are going to have to play the perfect game," Ginobili said of possibly stealing Game 4, after the Spurs slipped into a 3-0 hole for just the third time in the history of the franchise.
"They just killed us."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
With the Spurs nearly eliminated, thoughts about the former champs turn to the future, writes Marc Stein.