Updated: June 2, 2005, 5:41 AM ET

Spurs stop all but Amare

Stoudemire
AP
The Spurs held Stoudemire under 60 points in Game 5. Other than that, the 22-year-old Sun had his way ... except on this scoop shot, which rattled in and out with 1:11 to play.

PHOENIX – It was the Spurs, in the end, who achieved the allegedly impossible. Not the Suns.

There will be no storybook recovery from 3-zip to 3-1 to who knows. No need to start calling them the Phoenix Red Sox. The miracle came from the San Antonio side Wednesday night, when the visitors somehow held the run-and-shooters under 100 points. Again.

How miraculous?

After what Amare Stoudemire did to the Spurs – again – you honestly struggle to believe they kept Phoenix below triple digits.

Tim Duncan didn't even try to explain it. He rebounded nicely from his Game 4 meltdown at the line, as nicely as the Spurs could have hoped, but Duncan saw it immediately in Game 5, even as San Antonio was clamping down in the second half to end the Suns' storybook season.

Duncan watched Stoudemire plow through the mighty Spurs for another 42 points and 16 boards and quickly realized he might have a bigger problem than free throws in his future.

"I have no doubt that we'll do this again, [that] we'll be back in this situation in years to come," Duncan said, revealing what he told his Olympic teammate in their lengthy postgame embrace.

You can say that the Spurs have officially eliminated the Suns, twice in four victories holding them under 100 points. You can say they've repelled the 77th comeback attempt from 3-0 down (out of 77) in playoff history. You can say they've advanced to the NBA Finals for the third time in seven seasons with what the record books will show to be a fairly routine 4-1 series triumph.

What you can't say is that the Spurs put the Suns away.

Not with Stoudemire, who began this season pleading for Steve Nash to come to Phoenix to teach him how to be smarter, shredding the most feared defense this side of Detroit for 37, 41, 34, 31 and his career playoff-high 42. No one has ever done this to the Spurs. In the playoffs? Not even Shaq, at his mightiest.

"And just think – the guy is 22 years old," said Suns coach Mike D'Antoni.

Just think II: Stoudemire has been playing through a hyperextended elbow for most of the series.

From dunking too hard.

"I grew a lot as a player this postseason," Stoudemire said. "I think my confidence level went up, and I think my IQ as a basketball player has gotten better."

Uh-oh.

The good news for the Spurs?

Perhaps these five games at the motor speedway weren't the worst preparation for a Finals against the Pistons or Shaq's Heat. The pace is bound to be more grinding against either of those teams, but no one can deny that San Antonio just survived the most dominant offensive force in the game today.

That has to be good for the confidence.

Given how savvy Stoudemire was starting to look in the post, and given the defensive gems he's been sprinkling in lately, maybe what you should say is that the Spurs halted this series just in time.

"I never respected his jumper until this series," Spurs vet Robert Horry said. "If he keeps making his jumper, he'll be up there with some of the greats. He should get a lot of credit for what he did to us."

"I don't know what to do with him," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who spent considerable time before the game salivating over Stoudemire's ability to run the floor like a guard ... and his second jump after the ball is already on the rim ... and his touch from the perimeter and the line.

Pop before tipoff: "We thought he was the most improved player [in the league], but when you're already that good, you don't get the award."

Pop postgame: "He's only going to get better, [even though] I don't know how. What can he do, score 60?"

Impossible, probably. Even though he connects with Steve Nash even better than Dirk Nowitzki did, regularly 60-pointers are implausible.

But this string of 30s and 40s?

It's no mirage. It's what you can expect from the desert for the next several seasons. It's what Duncan, in triumph, dubbed "Amare as usual."

Talk back to the Daily Dime gang

Dimes Past: May 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 29 | 30 | 31 | June 1


Hey Joe
It's always disappointing when the top team in the regular season can't finish what it started in the postseason. Now the question for Executive of the Year Bryan Colangelo is, what should he do this summer to get the Suns back to the top?

Johnson

Decision No. 1 will be what to do with Joe Johnson. You think Colangelo is kicking himself a little bit that he didn't lock up Johnson to a reasonable contract extension this fall when he had the chance?

Johnson is a restricted free agent and could get a huge offer from a team like the Cavs, Clippers or Bobcats this summer. While the Suns clearly love Johnson, their love will be tested.

If Johnson gets a contract that starts at $8 million or more ... is he worth it? His PER (John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating) suggests that he wasn't much more than an average player for the Suns this season. His plus/minus stats are just so-so. Everyone's going to focus on the fact that he shot 47 percent from 3-point territory, but on a team other than the Suns, would he ever get close to that?

It comes down to a cap management question for the Suns. With Steve Nash and Shawn Marion already making the max and Amare Stoudemire expected to get a max extension this fall, how many more guys can they give huge contracts to? If the Suns do match any offer for Johnson, their payroll will be hovering near the luxury tax next season and beyond, severely limiting their ability to add more pieces to the roster.

On the other hand, if the Suns don't re-sign Johnson, who do they replace him with? He was the team's best three-point shooter. He was the Suns' primary ballhandler when Nash was on the bench resting. On a team that's mediocre at best defensively, Johnson's defensive effort stood out. Regardless of what the stats say, he was the most underrated member of the team's starting five this season. Without him, it's difficult to say they'd be as successful next season.

The Suns' future remains bright as ever as long as Nash and Stoudemire remain healthy.

But they have a true dilemma -- their decision on Joe Johnson, no matter what it is, will limit their ability to improve their team in the future.

Chad Ford



Discretion, Then Valor
Johnson
AP
Johnson gutted it out for what could be his last three games in a Phoenix uniform.

Joe Johnson has somehow played as well wearing a plastic face shield as he was playing before his scary fall in the Dallas series, after surgery and two weeks of inactivity. No surprise, then, that the locals are convinced this would have been a completely different series had Johnson been available for all five games.

Yet Phoenix management has betrayed no regret about holding Johnson out of the first two games. The Suns feel, frankly, as though they couldn't have gone wrong had they kept Johnson seated for the rest of the series, because of the severity of Johnson's eye injury and because no one could have anticipated such a speedy, seamless return to effectiveness.

Either way, we know what the Spurs' advice would have been ... assuming the Spurs were in a position to be objective.

Remember the spring of 2000? That's when San Antonio took a rigid stance with an even bigger name, in another Suns-Spurs series of recent vintage.

Heading into his free-agent summer, like Johnson, Tim Duncan tore knee cartilage late in the 1999-00 regular season. He tried to convince Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to let him come back for Game 4 of the first round against the Suns, with San Antonio trailing 2-1 in a best-of-five, and Popovich reluctantly let Duncan practice. As soon as he saw Duncan work out, Popovich told him to get back in his street clothes. The Spurs, defending their first-ever NBA championship, were eliminated in the next game without their best player.

Yet the Spurs never regretted their stance, and now Phoenix knows the feeling. As Suns president Bryan Colangelo said before Johnson's Game 3 return, "At the end of the day, the long-term health of the player is the most important thing."

That's the approach that must be taken when we're talking about an eye injury. You just don't mess with eyesight, whether or not the player in distress is heading for free agency.

The Spurs felt the same way five years ago about Duncan's knee. They weren't forcing Duncan to sit out their maiden title defense to prove to No. 21 how much they cared about him, as was widely speculated, because they believed Duncan already knew. It was purely to protect him.

"The care and trust between Tim and Pop was established long before Tim's injury," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said. "Tim didn't need to see how that situation was handled to evaluate those things."

Nope. For Duncan then and Johnson now, caution was simply the prudent course.

Marc Stein, from America West Arena in Phoenix



Off The Glass
Nash

The Suns are down 91-83 with about four minutes to go (in the game and in their season) when Steve Nash cuts through traffic and across the lane, left-to-right and looking for a layup. But here comes Duncan.

There's no way the MVP gets the shot up and over and he knows it, so he reaches just a little further than you think he can and tosses it off the glass on the far side of the rim. A little bank alley-oop for a driving Amare. A little baba-da-boom.

I mean, this wasn't quite as out there as the off the glass, off the noggin trick they pulled off in the dunk contest, but it was close.

Spurs

And this is what I'll miss now that they're done. This, more than anything, is what I love about the Suns. More than their fast break, more than their 3s, and more than their confidence, it's their creativity, their sense of play in any and all circumstances, that warms my heart.

What's that line Pop had about Nash and Amare? They make Stockton and Malone "look like Laurel and Hardy"? Amen, Brother.

The old Jazz duo ran the settest of set plays, but this Suns combo is a dream-it-and-do-it pair. Like Coltrane and Elvin Jones, they're improvising, playing off each other, and risking failure for the sake of brilliance. We're going to see some good ball in the Finals, no doubt, but things won't be quite as fun now.

Eric Neel


Extreme Behavior
Spurs

Wednesday's Best
San Antonio's defense: The Spurs did have a little trouble with Amare Stoudemire, true. But before all that praise they showered on the youngster, San Antonio did hold the other six Suns who played in Game 5 to 53 points. The Spurs hounded a weary Steve Nash into a 1-for-9 second half. They continued a series-long blanketing of Shawn Marion. And they held a hobbled Quentin Richardson scoreless. So you can understand why Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was giddy enough afterward to poke fun at his frontcourt by saying, "That's the Spurs. We held (Stoudemire) to 42 tonight. We're a hell of a defensive club."

Duncan

Wednesday's Worst
Suns' approach to Duncan: We know the Suns don't like to foul, because they don't like to slow the game down and don't want their thin team in foul trouble. But they should have hacked Duncan a minute or two into this one. As early as possible. After seeing Duncan's game fall apart in Game 4 after missing early -- and badly -- at the line, Phoenix should have put him on the line right away in Game 5 in hopes for a repeat. Duncan indeed was woefully short on his first free-throw attempt Wednesday night ... but he already had 16 points by the time he finally shot it in the second quarter.

Horry

Play of the Day
Robert Horry's follow dunk: It came late in the first quarter, so it lacks the crunch-time cachet to deserve a spot on Horry's lengthy playoff résumé, but it was memorable enough to hold up here. The 34-year-old flew into the air to save a ball headed out of bounds on the baseline, then worked his way back into the paint to position himself perfectly for Brent Barry's errant jumper. Horry then flushed the rebound home with a 24-year-old's vigor.

Mr. Outspoken
"David Robinson and Tim Duncan. You don't have to say anything else."

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, explaining why San Antonio has been able to reach the NBA Finals three times in the past seven years with three very different teams ... although Pop couldn't stop himself from adding that "what we have done really well is we haven't screwed it up."

Marc Stein, in Phoenix



Pic Of The Night
Duncan
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
After 2004's frustrating failure to defend their title, the Spurs have escaped the West and moved within four wins of their third championship in seven seasons.


Pick-And-Pound
The most ingenious trick the Spurs used to keep the Suns from playing at their usual breakneck tempo: switching on the Suns' pick-and-roll plays in the third quarter.

Maybe you noticed how many times Steve Nash found himself guarded by Tim Duncan or Robert Horry on the perimeter, or how many times Amare Stoudemire found Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili attempting to check him in the post. Most sound-principled defenses don't switch because it creates easy opportunities for a quick guard to drive or pull up on a slower big man and a forward or center to back down a puny opposing guard.

The Spurs did switch, though, for long stretches of the game, and it was bait the Suns couldn't help themselves from taking. Time and again, they found themselves with a mismatch, spaced the floor and allowed Nash or Stoudemire to go to work.

The problem: it burned time, dragged the overall tempo, and lulled the Suns into playing a style that didn't get their crowd going or the Spurs tired.

Popovich

"That did it," said Suns assistant coach Alvin Gentry. "Every time we saw a mismatch, we'd back the ball out and pound it trying to take advantage. That slowed us down as much as anything. It was truly smart on Pop's part."

The third quarter, of course, is the only period the Spurs outscored the Suns, taking an eight-point lead they never relinquished.

Ric Bucher, in Phoenix



Born To Run
Spurs

Mike D'Antoni jokes about it a lot, but maybe he's serious when he says he wishes San Antonio had the home-court advantage in the Western Conference finals.

San Antonio, after all, won all three games in Phoenix in this series. Looks like the Suns, as their coach often suggests, do play better on the road.

The Suns might have protected their home floor a little better, furthermore, if the two games Joe Johnson missed were roadies.

The bigger problem, though, was obviously the Suns' depth. Steve Nash admitted after Game 5 that he was stiff and sore to start the second half after a long playoff run and an 8-for-11 masterpiece in the first two quarters.

San Antonio's Robert Horry believes the series was decided not by the Spurs' superior defense or playoff experience but that it "came down to Phoenix playing five guys 40 minutes."

"I will take my responsibility and lumps with that and try to build on it and not be too depressed," Nash said after his MVP season ended with a 1-for-9 shooting performance in the second half.

"In some ways we got almost all we could ask for out of this season," Nash continued. "(But) in many ways (the ending) diminishes everything we accomplished this year. Hopefully in time we'll be able to look back and really feel proud of our accomplishments."

Just so you know, though: D'Antoni came away from the deflating finish more convinced than ever that the Suns' track-meet style can lead to a championship. Although they'll obviously need more size and a deeper bench to win two more playoff rounds.

And ...

"We're going to keep the style, but we have to get a lot better defensively," D'Antoni said. "We can get a lot better. We're very athletic and we're young. No reason why we can't guard people."

Said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who maintained all season that he considered Phoenix a credible contender: "I am sure they will stick with it. They will just get better."

Marc Stein, in Phoenix



Elias Says
Stoudemire

The fifth and final game of the Spurs' victory over the Suns in the Western Conference finals went the same for Amare Stoudemire and his team as the rest of the series did: Stoudemire scored 42 points, but the Suns lost.

Stoudemire averaged 37.0 points for the series, the highest average in the history of the NBA playoffs by a player whose team lost a best-of-seven series in five games or fewer.

The previous high was 35.6 by Allen Iverson in the 76ers' five-game loss to the Lakers in the 2001 NBA Finals.

Elias Sports Bureau | More from Elias



Miami Keys
When a team loses as decisively as the Heat did in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, it's time to adjust. ESPN Insider scout Brian James looks at what the Heat need to do:

In Game 4, the Pistons face-guarded Dwyane Wade when he didn't have the ball, and when he did, they swarmed him as he came off every screen.

Now it will be interesting to see how Miami counters this attack in Game 5. Van Gundy stated that others will need to be involved earlier in the play. That would allow them to come back to Wade as the play nears end so that when people run to help, it creates open shots.

In addition, Shaq's must stay out of foul trouble. He gets his teammates involved because of how he is defended, and they need his inside scoring.

Finally, Miami knows it must shoot better than the 44 percent from the floor and only 30 percent on 3-pointers in Game 5.

Brian James

 

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