Suns shake Spurs' foundation
Phoenix needed another larger than life performance from Stoudemire, and got it.
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 Monday 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 Monday'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 as a look at how the Spurs (namely, 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 would have been coming with a victory Monday.
Duncan couldn't have felt good about a five-point loss in which he missed nine free throws.
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 freebies 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.
Johnson rained down dead-eye jumpers all night.
The Phoenix Suns can't be faulted if they feel they've now got proof that the Western Conference finals could have been drastically different had Joe Johnson been available from the start.
It sounds like even San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich thinks the Suns have proof.
"Joe Johnson is a great player," Popovich said Monday night. "I mean, he makes a difference."
There was no other conclusion to draw after Game 4, with Johnson playing in just his second game since facial surgery ignoring the plastic mask he's wearing to score 26 points on 10-for-15 shooting and play a key role in the Suns' double-team success against Tim Duncan.
Johnson was also responsible for what might have been the Shot O' The Evening, which is saying something on a night filled with memorable plays.
It came with 2:03 to play, right after a straight-on triple by Robert Horry had drawn San Antonio within 102-101. Absolutely blanketed by Spurs defensive ace Bruce Bowen, Johnson rained in a clutch 16-footer from the baseline to stun the SBC Center audience.
"He's the reason we won the game," said Suns reserve center Steven Hunter.
Marc Stein, from the SBC Center in San Antonio
Like Hubie says, "You feel good for Shawn Marion right now."
You feel good because he came up with a comeback game when his team needed it, because he pulled 14 boards and went for 11 points, including nine in the Suns' big third quarter rally, and because you know he's been taking a pounding in the press these last few days.
It's not that you ever really doubted him. You've watched the Suns all season and you know, more than anyone else on the team, he's an in-the-flow, up-and-down, turn-it-and-push-it player. You knew when you were hearing all the smack about him disappearing so far in this series that talk like that kind of missed the point of Marion and missed the point of the Suns.
You understood that he wasn't going to press it, and the team wasn't going to look to him, or any other single player, to suddenly "step it up" or "turn it on" or any of those other Jordan-era individualisms.
You knew if he got off in this series it would be because the team was working as a team, because the Suns were finally, fully playing like the Suns.
And that, more than anything, is why "you feel good for Shawn Marion right now." It's not that the Suns won on Monday night because Marion came up big, it's that Marion's eruption was the best indication that in the third and fourth quarters Phoenix was doing what Phoenix does pushing the pace and kicking to space and doing it well.
And if that's true, and if they can sustain it on their home floor Wednesday night, you "feel good for Shawn Marion right now" because his night just might be a sign that this thing ain't anywhere close to over.
Rallying from 3-0 down in a seven-game series remains an NBA impossibility. No team has ever done it ... in 76 tries.
Just forcing a Game 5 is a historic achievement for the Phoenix Suns.
Phoenix is just the fifth team since the league switched from a two-division format to multiple conferences in 1970-71 to lose the first two games of a conference finals series at home.
But three of the Suns' predecessors got swept, a fate Phoenix avoided with its 111-106 triumph Monday night.
The Lakers were swept in the 1977 West finals by Portland after losing the first two games at home. San Antonio suffered the same fate against the Lakers in 2001, and Detroit was swept out of the East finals in 2003 after dropping the first two games at home to New Jersey.
By winning Game 4, Phoenix joins the 1995 Spurs as the only teams in this situation to avoid a sweep. The Spurs, though, did lose the '95 West finals to Houston in six games after opening with two losses at home.
Marc Stein, in San Antonio
Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix: Stoudemire ends up in this cyberspace a lot, but he has never deserved it more. Despite two early fouls and his failure to grab a single rebound in the first half, Stoudemire made the biggest offensive and, yes, defensive plays for the Suns down the stretch. He scored 11 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter, then clinched the victory with a stunning block of Tim Duncan's dunk attempt in the final minute ... followed by a game-sealing offensive rebound.
Play of the Day
Marc Stein, in San Antonio
Limbo man: Steve Nash's acrobatic assist to Amare Stoudemire gave the Spurs a three-point lead (see Play of the Day, above).
The Suns got a huge, unexpected defensive contribution in crunch time from Amare Stoudemire, whose defense has been ripped throughout the series for being well below average. After scoring inside at one end to give Phoenix a three-point cushion, Stoudemire made the stop of his career by rejecting Duncan's dunk attempt at the rim with 34.9 seconds to play.
Asked if mounting criticism of his D was the motivation behind the block, Stoudemire didn't confirm or deny the premise: "As my years progress, I am pretty sure I can become a better defensive player."
Marc Stein, in San Antonio
The Suns on Monday became the first team in NBA history to win a playoff game on the road after trailing at halftime and facing a three-games-to-none deficit.
Six home teams have won under that scenario, but only one of them overcame a halftime deficit as great as the seven-point margin the Suns faced tonight.
The Golden State Warriors trailed 65-57 at halftime but defeated the Lakers in Game 4 of a 1987 Western Conference semifinal series. The Lakers won the series in five games.
Elias Sports Bureau
Give SportsNation props for its foresight.
After Game 2, we asked NBA fans whether the Suns would have any success in Alamo City and get the West finals back to Phoenix for Game 5.
Slightly over seven in ten said they would.
Before Game 3: How many of the next two games in San Antonio will the Suns win?
There are nomads, and then there are nomads who aspire to be Larry Brown.
As the Detroit Pistons and Miami Heat prepare for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, ESPN.com is reporting that Pistons coach Larry Brown plans to take the Cleveland Cavaliers' offer to become their next team president at the end of the season.
Here's a scorecard, covering Brown's ABA, NBA and college coaching career:
*Brown coached the Denver franchise both before and after the ABA/NBA merger.