- David Thorpe, NBA
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The good news for the Suns in their Game 2 loss in San Antonio is that for three quarters (first, second and fourth combined) they were the better team, outscoring the Spurs by 10 points and looking dominant for stretches. Of course, the 27-11 thrashing they received in the third quarter proved to be ruinous and should be the focus of their film study prior to Game 3.
San Antonio used two separate styles on offense to attack the Phoenix defense in the third quarter. The Spurs ran Michael Finley in a boxed set off staggered screens or a double screen and got three made jumpers. And they paired him with Tim Duncan on a side pick-and-roll, forcing the slow-moving Shaq into a switch, which Finley made him pay for with a short and uncontested baseline jumper.
After five minutes and eight points from Finley, the Spurs went from down nine points to up two. Credit Finley and the Spurs for running these sets instead of just relying on Duncan and Tony Parker to start the half. Yes, Phoenix would prefer to have Finley taking shots rather than TP or TD, but it would prefer he misses.
After that, it was the Manu and Parker show. San Antonio just kept running ball screens -- from the top and the wings, mostly with the guy Shaq was guarding. It was as if Gregg Popovich said to his players: Shaq may be a good matchup against Duncan in the post, but he's a huge liability defending in space, so let's attack him there. Every time. Shaq was too slow to hedge effectively, so he typically stayed back and gave up the midrange jumper. Parker and Manu can hit that shot or look as if they are going to stop and shoot, then blow past Shaq for the layup.
There is no magic adjustment to protect Shaq outside of benching him in favor of smaller guys who can defend in space better. But then Duncan will go to work in the post. So Phoenix has to pick its poison.
One thing the Suns can do is play better in defensive transition. San Antonio outscored Phoenix in fast-break points 23-4, after getting just three fast-break points in Game 1. Again, Shaq was a liability here, not only because he was too slow to race back and protect the paint (which would allow his guards to leave the basket and find the shooters), but because he was caught defending in space again when the Spurs set drag or influence screens. Also, he stayed up the floor with Duncan at times. Because of that, there was a clear post area, which allowed Parker and Ginobili to beat their man and get an uncontested layup. Shaq blocked four shots, but the Spurs scored 72 points in the paint.
Stoudemire has to be more aware of helping in the paint in transition as well. Phoenix cannot get scorched in both the half-court and full-court games and expect to win this series, much less a couple of games.
The Suns will have an easier time making offensive adjustments, and perhaps that's where their focus should lie -- just try to outscore the Spurs. Their shot selection and overall decision-making in the third quarter were poor. Bruce Bowen picked up Nash as close to half court as he could, hoping he would give the ball up quickly. Too often, Nash did. Shaq couldn't get an angle past Kurt Thomas and forced up some awkward-looking shots. Stoudemire settled for a contested long and off-balance jumper early in one possession, then tried to force a drive past a helping Parker on another, in which Parker stole the ball.
In pick-and-rolls, the Suns were able to induce Duncan to switch out onto Nash, and though Nash didn't hurt TD much in this game, it is likely he will in Phoenix.
The Suns' best action in the first half was the same as the Spurs' in the second, high ball-screen action from the top with Nash and Amare Stoudemire. Nash was brilliant at getting the ball early to a slipping Stoudemire, who would make the catch in the soft middle of the paint instead of deeper, where other Spurs players were waiting.
But in the second half, because Grant Hill is struggling offensively, the Spurs had Finley clogging the middle up on the same actions, helping to neutralize the play. So in Game 3 I'd look for less playing time for Hill, with maybe Leandro Barbosa or Gordan Giricek in his spot, hoping to keep Finley stuck on the baseline.
Despite playing so well for three of the four quarters, the Suns shot only 4-for-13 from 3 and 46.3 percent overall. They can shoot with more confidence at home. In another nail-biter, I see Phoenix putting together a better overall offensive game, perhaps by going smaller more often.
PREDICTION: Suns win Game 3
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Scouts Inc. breaks down Game 3 between the Suns and the Spurs and picks the winner.