Spurs wreck Suns' abandon
Joe Johnson was fine in his return from a facial fracture, but hardly enough.
The Suns were no less convincing with the belief that Johnson could get sufficiently hot at the other end to keep Bowen from exclusively locking up Shawn Marion.
They made you believe, in short, that Johnson got some superhero garb along with that facemask. They somehow made it sound as though losing the first two games of the Western Conference finals at home wasn't necessarily fatal.
It all sounded pretty promising on the off-days, until Saturday. Until Saturday night, when the Suns and Spurs were back in the same building.
Only one team on the NBA map has been able to repeatedly douse the Suns' belief this season. San Antonio did it this time for the fifth time in five tries with a full-strength lineup with a start-to-finish swamping that just might have been more impressive than its two road wins in Phoenix earlier in the week.
"They are a complete basketball team," Johnson said in a near-empty locker room, slowly pulling on his socks after contributing a gutty 15 points in 37 minutes to this 102-92 defeat. "We make too many mistakes when we play those guys. Every time we play them, we just don't bring it."
Suns coach Mike D'Antoni made the same observation, openly wondering what happened to his team's sense of "abandonment." He meant sense of abandon, but the point was clear. Late in the second quarter, when the Spurs applied the fiercest defensive pressure of the series so far, Phoenix wilted.
"Kind of put our heads down," Steve Nash said. The Suns surrendered their run-run-run focus in the pressure of the moment and never recovered, managing just two points in the final 6:54 of the half. Nash had four turnovers in the same span.
"It seemed like we just got rattled," D'Antoni said.
Said Nash: "They make you feel like you have to play a perfect game."
That's because, against the Suns, San Antonio is always flirting with perfection. They attacked Johnson at the start with a series of pick-and-rolls to test his readiness, leading to yet another flurry of Parker layups. They punished the Suns' utter lack of interior defense. And on top of the stout resistance that held Phoenix below 100 points for the first time in these playoffs, San Antonio again avoided the sort of team-wide shooting drought that has been known to diffuse Duncan's effectiveness. Against the Suns? The Spurs always make shots.
Phoenix can't even count on seeing so much as a glimpse of the Spurs' free-throw frailties to offset its stifled "abandonment." Duncan? A mere 15-for-15, in contrast to the Suns' 11-for-15 showing as a team.
"I am taking my time up there ... instead of rushing it and wanting to get off that line," Duncan said after hiking his playoff free-throw percentage to a (relatively) sparkling .778
Make it a 3-1 advantage in playmakers for the Spurs and a 3-zip edge on the series scoreboard. We called it a 2-1 advantage in playmakers in a recent Dime, only for Nash to politely point out that we forgot to include Duncan in the same sentence with Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Yet with Nash finally playing a mortal game, seemingly his first in weeks, Phoenix was actually looking at a couple 3-0 scorelines on this night.
That's what happens when they see the Spurs, and no mask can change that perspective.
"They make it very difficult to do anything," D'Antoni said.
Give Steve Nash points for effort and creativity, if nothing else, on this impossible 2nd-quarter layup. The Spurs' team defense smothered Nash in Game 3, allowing him only 8-for-18 shooting and three assists (vs. six turnovers) and holding the Suns to 92 points.
The Suns are having a full-blown identity crisis. To be or not to be themselves, that is indeed the question with perhaps only one more game to find an answer.
To be what they've been all season means playing Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion as their big men, switching rather than double-teaming and rotating, and not getting physical to avoid fouls that prevent the game from being a track meet. Against the Spurs, though, that means watching Tim Duncan score at will and letting Tony Parker fearlessly attack the rim.
Things got no better Saturday for third-team All-NBA star Shawn Marion, who was benched for 11 minutes of the fourth quarter.
The other choice is not to be what they've been all season. As in play 7-foot reserve center Steven Hunter, who has done the best job of guarding Duncan one-on-one, and bang Parker when he enters the paint.
That, though, means losing the fast-break edge Stoudemire and Marion create, since Hunter isn't in the same class as a finisher. They've tried double-teaming Duncan in spots, but that's simply opened up wide-open 3s and driving lanes for the rest of the Spurs and allowed too many offensive rebounds (San Antonio 16, Phoenix 12 in Game 3).
The Suns' only displays of toughness have come after they've recovered the ball brandishing it rather than pushing it up the floor.
"It's almost like we're playing against them to show our manhood, when we just need to play Phoenix Sun basketball," said Suns coach Mike D'Antoni. "When we grab a rebound, we don't make the effort to run. Also, the ball just got stuck in people's hands. Everything is a one-on-one, 'I am going to be down your throat' kind of thing. That's not going to make it against this team."
Ric Bucher, from the SBC Center in San Antonio
By now you shouldn't be surprised that the Spurs could go to Phoenix and win two games in the 100s, and then put up a solid 102 in Saturday's Game 3 triumph at home.
After all, San Antonio almost never loses when it scores in triple digits.
The Spurs have the best winning percentage in the league season for teams that score at least 100 points at .947. They're 36-2 overall, and a perfect 8-0 in the playoffs.
The rest of the top five: Chicago 26-3 (.897), Miami 50-7 (.877), Detroit 23-4 (.852) and Indiana 20-4 (.833).
Of course, the challenge for the strictly defensive-minded teams on the list -- Chicago, Detroit and Indiana -- has been getting to 100 points often. Phoenix didn't make the list because almost every game it plays is in the 100s, win or lose.
The Suns have scored 100 points in all but 15 of their 95 games, including the playoffs. They're 63-17 (.788) when they reach triple digits and 7-8 when held under 100.
Marc Stein, from the SBC Center in San Antonio
Play of the Day
Marc Stein, in San Antonio
The most glaring example of what the Spurs have done to the Suns occurred with 4:04 left in Game 3, when Steve Nash rebounded a missed 3-point attempt by Robert Horry, bolted down court to lead a fast break and then did three things that it's hard to remember Nash doing all season.
First of all, the fast break ground to a halt without a shot being attempted as Nash stopped just below the free-throw line. Second, the whirling dervish picked up his dribble. Third, he didn't (or couldn't) give up the ball. Facing either a three-seconds call or getting stripped, he basically conceded and dropped the ball as if to restart his dribble (the official call was traveling).
Overall, Nash finished with three assists. Not counting his two assists in 11 minutes vs. the Pacers on Jan. 14, when he left the game after bruising his left thigh, that's a season low.
"Can't be Superman every night," D'Antoni said.
Horry believes the Spurs' defense deserves some credit.
"We're only sending two guys to the offensive boards to make sure we always have at least two guys back," Horry said. "We're also not worried about who we guard. A lot of teams try to find their man and that can create gaps because there are a lot of cross matches. We just say, 'Whoever you find yourself next to, that's who you're guarding.' It's worked."
Ric Bucher, in San Antonio
The Spurs defeated the Suns 102-92 in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals and became the first team to hold Phoenix below 100 points in the 2005 playoffs.
The Suns' streak of 12 consecutive 100-point games to start the playoffs was the longest by any NBA team since the Celtics hit triple-figures in their first 22 games in the 1987 playoffs.
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No one in the building Saturday had more empathy for the Suns' Joe Johnson than former Spurs center Will Perdue.
Perdue, who's working the Western Conference finals as an ESPN Radio analyst alongside play-by-play man Kevin Calabro, knows how it feels to play with a facial shield. During the 1994-95 season in Chicago, Perdue suffered a broken nose after taking an elbow from current Spurs forward Tony Massenburg.
And Perdue's recollections of playing with a mask aren't fond.
"First and foremost, even though the mask is made of plexiglass, there are visual problems," Perdue told the Arizona Republic earlier this week. "You're so used to, as a player, being able to move your eyes from side to side, using your peripheral vision. Well, this pretty much eliminates the peripheral vision.
"When I first started wearing the mask, I took a couple balls off the side of the head because I figured I could just turn my eyes. There's also the issue of getting comfortable with it. It's not a porous material, so you sweat profusely."
That's not all.
"When the swelling goes down, he has to get new [masks] because the pressure points in your face change," Perdue said. "It's a very complicated situation."
One key to the Spurs' Game 3 dominance was the free-throw shooting of Tim Duncan, a career 69 percent FT shooter who shot just 67 percent during the regular season.
With his free-throw perfection in Game 3, Duncan joined a very short list of frontcourt greats to go at least 15-for-15 from the line and grab 15 or more rebounds in the same game. Two are in the Hall of Fame and two are building very nice résumés.
Sanford Appell, ESPN Research
If the Spurs finish off Phoenix in Monday's Game 4, they'll make the Suns the winningest team in NBA history to get swept in a best-of-seven series.
The 1997-98 Lakers lost 4-0 to Utah in the West finals after going 61-21 in the regular season. The Suns went 62-20 this season to claim the top seed in the West.