Seed of doubt creeps into once-invincible Spurs

Updated: May 31, 2005, 5:10 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- When friends really want to needle the NBA's Most Valuable Player, they are apt to tell Steve Nash that the Spurs are always dragging him down.

That would be the Spurs he's facing in the Western Conference finals ... and the perennially underachieving Spurs from London who play proper English football. Nash's family has rooted for Tottenham Hotspur -- known simply as Spurs to their legions of unfulfilled fans -- for generations.

Only this time, after a day-plus of bad body language that didn't exactly generate much hope around the Phoenix Suns, Nash's side rebounded quickly and did all the torturing Sunday night. With San Antonio's Spurs on the verge of a week-plus of NBA Finals preparations, Amare Stoudemire and a resurgent Joe Johnson combined to plunge the Spurs into a period of unforeseen doubt between now and Game 5 back at America West Arena by sparking Sunday's gritty 111-106 triumph.

"They had all the pressure," said Suns forward Shawn Marion.

And they caved.

Or did they? With Manu Ginobili rumbling for a highlight-reel 28 points, and Bruce Bowen and Robert Horry each draining clutch fourth-quarter triples and registering 15 bonus points apiece, it's an overstatement to say that the Spurs collectively caved.

It was Tim Duncan, stunningly.

Riding a run of 25 consecutive makes at the free-throw line, Duncan missed three of his first four attempts in Game 4 and cratered from there. He wound up missing nine of 12 attempts from the line, including an air ball, and looked as tentative as you can look when you're still going for 15 points and 16 boards. The Suns double-teamed Duncan harder than they have until now, with Johnson doing most of the doubling instead of the smaller Nash, and Duncan struggled to answer.

So a series that seemed over now turns interesting, partly because the Suns are quite capable of extending this to a Game 6 ... but mainly to see how the Spurs (re: Duncan) respond. You still have to strongly believe that San Antonio is going to get the one victory it needs to secure a Finals berth, but Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was desperately hoping for the quick ending in spite of the long layoff that goes with it.

Reason being: Pop knows how much practice-floor work he faces, after this track-meet series with the Suns, to get his players ready for a much more physical Finals against Detroit or Miami.

The only positive for Pop now is knowing that he won't have to shield the Spurs from a week of They've Never Played Better media fawning. Which was coming with a victory Sunday.

Nash himself suggested that the Spurs were playing "as well as they have ever played" in amassing a 3-0 series lead. And he has the first-hand historical knowledge to make such assessments, having been eliminated by San Antonio in the same round while with Dallas during the Spurs' 2003 championship run.

Yet this performance almost certainly killed that storyline. Worse yet, it possibly dented the Spurs' confidence, just as it was starting to bubble nicely.

Who knows? Confidence, after all, is a very fragile thing. Even for an otherworldly 7-footer who routinely makes bank shots from the wing that look far tougher than free throws.

How fragile? Just a couple nights earlier, Duncan was fielding questions about how he's "over the hump" at the line, after shooting just 67 percent on frees during the regular season.

Just like that, his free-throwing is back under the microscope and a left-for-dead series has been hauled back to the desert.

"Just a tough night all around -- from the field, from the line, just everything," Duncan said. "... We helped them a bunch."

Correction: Duncan helped them a bunch. Not what Nash is used to from a Spur, basketball breed or otherwise.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics