Brent Barry's deep thoughts
After mighty struggles in Round 2 against the Sonics, Barry was mighty good on Sunday: 21 points, 8-for-12 shooting, five 3s, and three steals.
PHOENIX -- There was a time, many months back, when the name nominated for Best Free Agent Signing O' The Summer was rarely Steve Nash.
It was usually Brent Barry.
Barry, not Nash, was the guy widely billed as the missing piece for a championship contender. Even more than the eventual MVP of the whole league, Barry was initially seen as the potentially perfect fit for his new team.
It took only 100 games or so for Bones to dislodge the weight of those expectations.
It finally happened for the slender shooter in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals -- Game 104 of the season for the San Antonio Spurs, counting exhibitions. After two weeks of self-loathing throughout a nightmare series against his former employers from Seattle, Barry dropped 21 clutch points Sunday, including back-to-back triples inside the final five minutes to stretch a two-point Spurs lead to eight. Despite a wrecking-ball 41 points from Amare Stoudemire and a ho-hum 29 points and 13 assists from Nash, the Phoenix Suns never got closer than six thereafter in a 121-114 defeat.
"A lot of people have talked about a lot of the things I'm supposed to bring to the table for this team," Barry said. "This year, I've been battling and trying to get out of my own way. For at least an afternoon I was able to do that."
Barry watched with envy in the previous round when Nash somehow outshined his new MVP trophy by playing the series of his life against his old pals from Dallas. Bones would have settled for a fraction of that performance against the Sonics but didn't manage even that, regressing to the point that he was pulled from the starting lineup before Game 5 and replaced by Manu Ginobili.
The struggles sapped Barry of what little confidence he had left after a regular season that didn't go much better. After shooting 50.4 percent from the field and 45.2 percent on 3-pointers in his final Sonics season, Barry slumped to 42.3 percent and 35.7 percent in those categories as a Spur.
Horry (whose 12 big points included this monster slam) and Barry did nothing to dispel the conventional wisdom that the San Antonio bench will make the difference in the series for the Spurs.
Yet Barry never lost the support of his teammates. He told Tim Duncan before Sunday's series opener, "I owe it to you guys to play well." Duncan told Barry to relax and stop beating himself up, and Robert Horry offered a similar message.
"I told him, 'I know how you feel,' " Horry said, recalling his own failures last spring in an emotional second-round showdown with the Lakers after leaving Hollywood for South Texas. "He wanted to beat them more than anything. I told him: 'Now the pressure's off. We got this off your back.' "
Barry and Horry then proceeded to combine for 7-for-12 shooting from long distance and 33 points overall in today's Game 1. That helped keep the lane open for the Spurs' two hobbling stars -- Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili -- to combine with Tony Parker for a whopping 77 points.
The challenge now, of course, is doing it more than once, but Barry was cautiously hopeful in the victorious locker room. He thinks he knows what he's been doing wrong -- pressing -- and believes that Sunday's 13-point salvo in the fourth quarter "can cure a lot of ills" floating in his head.
Whether it does or doesn't, you needn't worry about Barry losing his All-Star sense of humor, heavily self-deprecating and treasured here in Dimedom. Asked if he's been trying too hard all season, Barry said: "Gee, lemme think."
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich turned the tide in the fourth quarter by changing his defense against the Suns' trademark pick-and-roll play.
For three quarters, Steve Nash was burning the Spurs on this play. Nash would come off the screen clear and the Spurs' big man would be reluctant to step forward and pick him up, leaving him with an easy jump shot.
But when Nash returned with 10 minutes left in the fourth, Popovich changed tactics. His big men raced out to trap Nash on the perimeter and force the ball out of his hands, leaving the Suns' offense in the hands of others after he was forced to unload the ball.
From that point until one minute remained, the Suns registered just 12 points. That key sequence allowed the Spurs to gain control of the game, giving them the road win they needed.
The Suns missed Joe Johnson in Sunday's Game 1 more than at any point in the Dallas series ... but not because of Johnson's offensive capabilities.
Johnson is also the Sun most likely to guard Tony Parker.
With Johnson still recovering from an orbital fracture, Steve Nash was forced to guard Parker and carry the Phoenix offense. Nash produced his now-customary 29 points and 13 assists, but couldn't prevent Parker from scoring 29 himself.
Chances are Nash will have to deal with Parker and his own offensive load for at least one more game, with the Suns hoping to wait until next Saturday's Game 3 in San Antonio before bringing Johnson back.
When that happens, look for Johnson to guard Parker and Nash to switch to the less-taxing Bruce Bowen.
Marc Stein, from America West Arena in Phoenix
Here are a couple of reasons the San Antonio-Phoenix series is so compelling, courtesy of our SportsNation poll.
When we asked who should take the last shot for the Spurs, the predictable winner was eight-time all-NBA superstar Tim Duncan ... but with less than half the vote.
And when we asked which team would prevail, the response showed the Spurs and Suns in a dead heat. The results, added up and rounded off, come out 50-50.
Who would you want taking the last shot for San Antonio?
Who wins the series?
Play of the Day
Marc Stein, in Phoenix
AP/Mark J. Terrill
Manu Ginobili showed Tony Parker a little trophy love after the French point guard led the Spurs with 29 points in their 121-114 win in Game 1 of the West finals in Phoenix.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and new Suns owner Robert Sarver exchanged pleasant cross-court acknowledgments before tip-off Sunday.
Game 1 marked their first encounter since Sarver famously flapped his elbows in March and mouthed "chicken" at the Spurs' bench upon learning that Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili would be rested for the teams' last regular-season meeting.
"We all do things we wish we wouldn't have done," Popovich said, "and I've done worse than that."
Sarver had already sent apologizes to Popovich and the Spurs shortly after the incident.
Marc Stein, in Phoenix
On Friday, Bill Simmons picked the Spurs in six, and gave a glimpse of why this series has been so keenly anticipated:
Without getting my hopes too high -- I swear, I'm reining myself in -- given the contrasting styles and the personalities involved, this could be the most compelling playoff series in three years (since the Kings-Lakers series) and the most asthetically pleasing series since the Chicago-Phoenix Finals in '93 (which was wildly entertaining to watch).
And not since the 1998 Finals has there been a series where every neutral basketball fan will be supporting one team (in this case, the Suns) -- partly because of the way they play, partly because people are tired of the Spurs, partly because of the Ginobili-Bowen factor.
Throw in Nash and the outrageous Stoudamire-Duncan matchup and I couldn't be more excited about this series. It's not possible.
The Spurs scored 43 points in the fourth quarter of today's win over the Suns, equaling the second-highest fourth-quarter total in NBA history in a road victory.
The record is 47, set by the Nuggets in a 136-114 win over the Lakers in the 1985 Western Conference finals.
The other team to score 43 was the Hawks, in a 112-104 win over the Celtics in 1988.
Elias Sports Bureau | More from Elias
In the Eastern Conference finals, expect a good defensive struggle, or poor offensive output, depending how you look at it.
Here is the "top four" in an ugly stat, the lowest combined field goal percentage for conference finals opponents in their regular-season meetings (shot-clock era only):
1. Hawks vs Lakers, 1957: 36.2%
That breaks down this way for this season's three Heat-Pistons shootouts: The Heat burned the nets at 39.6 percent, and the Pistons fired at 36.4 percent.
Sanford Appell, ESPN Research