Can Suns avoid Spurs' defensive vise grip?

Updated: May 3, 2007, 5:09 AM ET
By Marc J. Spears | Special to ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- The long alley-oops to Carmelo Anthony were gone. There were no easy layups for Allen Iverson. No fun. Just boring half-court basketball. And after just five postseason games, the Nuggets' season is now over due to the stingy San Antonio Spurs defense.

Still, it's one thing to shut down the Nuggets' fast break and quite another to shut down Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns. But the Spurs more than displayed against the Nuggets that they have the defensive capabilities to make even the running Suns boring, too.

"I tip my hat to San Antonio," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "They are a great defensive team and they realized they had to be at the top of their game defensively and they were."

Remember how fun the Nuggets were to watch during the regular-season?

Denver entered the postseason with a 42-14 mark when scoring 100 or more points this season, averaged the third-most points in the NBA with 105.4 points per game and was second in the NBA in fast-break points with 18.6 per contest. The Nuggets also had the NBA's second-leading scorer in the regular season in Anthony and the eighth in Iverson.

But in the No. 3 seed Spurs the No. 6 seed Nuggets faced their worst possible Western Conference foe.

San Antonio led the NBA in scoring defense (90.1 points per game) in the regular season and was fourth in field-goal percentage defense (.443). The Spurs also have two all-NBA defensive first-team members in Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen.

Supposedly aging San Antonio doesn't have the best athletes pound-for-pound in the NBA nor the fastest. But one key to the Spurs' stopping teams that love to run is they get back to defend their baskets on fast breaks better than any other team in the league.

How? Well, it's simple. Either get back or deal with the glare and repercussions of San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich.

"You get back or you ain't going to play," Spurs center Francisco Elson said. "He's a tough man. He's going to explain it to you one time. If you don't get it, you just ain't going to play."

Well, the Spurs got back in the first round and the Nuggets simply weren't able to play their game not once in the series that ended with a 93-78 Game 5 loss at the AT&T Center on Wednesday .

The Nuggets won Game 1 of the series 95-89 against the Spurs. But even in their lone triumph Denver played Spurs ball instead of its own brand by scoring just three fast-break points. The Nuggets scored only 88 points and had seven fast-break points in a Game 2 loss. Denver had 91 points and only nine fast-break points in a Game 3 loss at the Pepsi Center, and then only 89 points and 10 fast-break points in a Game 4 loss at the Pepsi Center. And Denver had a series-low 78 points and just six fast-break points in a deciding Game 5 in San Antonio.

Overall, the Nuggets averaged 88.2 points on 42.3 percent shooting and seven fast-break points per game against the Spurs. In other words, San Antonio limited Denver to 17.2 fewer points and 11.6 fewer fast-break points in the first round than it averaged in the regular season.

The Spurs didn't have any answer for Anthony, who averaged 26.8 points per game, and I'm not sure anyone in the world does now. But San Antonio did limit Iverson, an eight-time NBA All-Star, to a playoff career low 22.8 points per game.

"There were times that I would get by my man and find another one waiting for me at the basket," Iverson said. "That's great defense. They play that same style of defense every night."

The Suns better get ready to see that defense that the Spurs take so much pride in every night, too. And not long ago, Phoenix got a taste of just how suffocating San Antonio's defense can be.

Second-seeded Phoenix finished the regular season averaging an NBA-best 110.2 points per game as well as 17 fast-break points. The Suns have the NBA's best passer in Nash, a two-time reigning MVP who averaged a league-best 11.6 assists per game. Many of those assists went to athletic, All-Star big men Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion.

All those aforementioned statistics are impressive. But the statistic from the regular-season that Phoenix has to be worried about is its box score on April 5, 2007.

It was on that night -- their last meeting with San Antonion -- when the Spurs put the Suns' fast break in cement during a 92-85 at AT&T Center. San Antonio held Phoenix to a season-low 37 points at halftime on 34.1 percent shooting.

The only Sun to reach the 20-point mark was Nash with 20. The Suns were 2-of-11 from beyond the arc, tying their season low in 3s made, and had a season low in points, field-goal percentage (38.6) and assists (14). They also tied their season low in field goals made (32). Oh, yeah, Phoenix was limited to six fast break points, too.

"We did not get in transition like we wanted to, but that's rare for us,'' said Phoenix guard Raja Bell, to the media in San Antonio, after the April 5 loss.

April 5 isn't quite a month ago, which means that defensive lockdown by the Spurs is still fresh in Phoenix' mind. The long alley-oops to Stoudemire may be gone. There might not be any easy layups for Nash. No fun and just boring half-court basketball is quite possible, too.

Be careful Suns. The boring basketball just displayed by those running Nuggets is possible for you, too, because of that stingy Spurs defense.

Marc J. Spears covers the Denver Nuggets and the NBA for The Denver Post.

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