There was an extended moment as the game began to slip away from Phoenix last night early in the fourth quarter when the reality and breadth of their underachievement set in: The Phoenix Suns, the team that had rescued professional basketball in North America, the most likable squad in our lifetime, pro sports' fair-haired kids. Yet here they were, stumbling home from a bender, wrapping the family car around a telephone pole. If they lose this series with a whimper, they'll be broken into several little pieces, only to be reassembled as an unrecognizable derivation of what we all know and love.
When Tony Parker hit a couple of free throws with 3:58 left in the game, the Spurs extended their narrowing lead back up to seven. And, as we know, San Antonio isn't the kind of team that blows seven point leads at home. What follows is a 16-3 run that, at least momentarily, saves the Phoenix Suns from sports mortality:
- With Tim Duncan sitting with five fouls, Nash brings it up against Bruce Bowen and gets a very, very high screen from Amare [guarded by Oberto]. The height of the screen is notable, and it gets Nash a considerable running start. Nash manages to work a drive against Oberto as far as the foul line, while Amare has recovered, trying to seal Bowen in the low post. The Spurs' halfcourt man-to-man here is as sound as it's been all night. The Spurs played one of their trademark games for 42 minutes, as good as anything we've seen from them over the past decade in a big game, and the pace in this set is about at San Antonio-ish as it gets. Nash swings it to Bell who dumps it into Amare off the right mid-post, still defended by Bowen. Amare holds the ball momentarily, then springs left with a fierce drive into the lane. His layup is good. Neither Ginobili nor Finley do much in the way of help, even though they're far inside the arc.
San Antonio 95, Phoenix 90 [3:36]
- Ginobili and Oberto had run a beautiful Argentine S/R off the right wing [call it the
PinochetVidela S/R] just a few minutes before and that's clearly what Ginobili has in mind here, except that Marion rotates over on a diving Oberto. I know the box score won't be kind to Marion, but his defense last night on rotations and in general help situations was stellar - as always. Ginobili reverses the ball to Parker, who misses a wide open 19-footer. Rebound Amare.
- The Suns run the ball upcourt and Bell launches an instant 25-foot 3PA that's doesn't come close and ends up in Oberto's hands. Duncan continues to sit.
- Oberto sets a screen for Parker, who drives into the lane against a backtracking Amare, with Marion in pursuit from behind. He misses the layup, and the ball squirts over to Nash.
- Nash races it up in transition and, at 70 mph, leaves the ball for Bell at the top of the arc. The essential piece here is that, after Nash drops the ball, he plants himself in Ginobili's path. Ginobili can never recover, and Bell gets a clear lane to the hoop for a layup.
Still no Duncan underneath.
San Antonio 95, Phoenix 92 [2:42]
- The Spurs' interior defense has turned to flan and Gregg Popovich has seen enough. Tim Duncan reenters the game for Oberto.
SA tries to run a S/R for Ginobili-Duncan, but on Manu's drive, Shawn Marion steps up from the baseline and blocks the shot. Fortunately for the Spurs, it lands in Duncan's hands and he lays it off the glass for a layup.
San Antonio 97, Phoenix 92 [2:22]
- The Suns walk it up and Amare sets a high, high screen for Nash, who gets Duncan on the switch. Nash buys a second with a crossover, stops, sets, and hits a little 17-foot jumper. With five fouls, Duncan seems tentative to challenge the jump shot, for obvious reasons.
San Antonio 97, Phoenix 94 [2:05]
- Parker dishes the ball to Ginobili on the left side, with Bell giving him absolutely no room. Manu dumps it into Duncan off the left high post, and Duncan draws an immediately double-team from Marion. As Marion moves over, Parker is left alone about five feet from the basket. If Duncan holds it another second, he'll see Parker cut, but the double-team is smothering and Duncan kicks a skip pass to the first teammate he sees - Bowen alone on the wing [Marion quickly moves now to collect Parker]. This isn't Bowen's shot, so he dishes it over to a well-guarded Finley [to the extent that anyone Barbosa covers can be "well-guarded"]. With the shot clock winding down, Finley passes it back up top to Ginobili, who drives and throws up a flailing runner that draws nothing but glass. Marion on the rebound.
- In transition, Nash finds Bell along the left arc where Raja likes to set up. Bell springs to shoot the 3PA, but at the last minute sees Marion dive down the lane unguarded. Bell zips the ball into Marion at the rim and Marion jams.
Side note: Steve Kerr pretty much knows what's going on in every facet of the game at every moment, and can articulate without hysteria or hyperbole.
San Antonio 97, Phoenix 96 [1:31]
- San Antonio spreads the floor, but the movement has slowed to a halt. Phoenix is manned up, with Amare guarding Duncan on the right block, which is where Duncan gets the ball with about :06 remaining on the shot clock. He tries to spin right and drive through the lane, but Amare gives him very little. When Duncan spins left with :03 left on the shot clock, there's Marion to deny him access to the baseline. With no other recourse, Duncan forces up a fadeaway 9-footer that doesn't drop. Marion grabs the rebound. Down only one, Phoenix has officially taken control of the basketball game.
- A high Nash/Stoudemire S/R, this time on the left side. Duncan picks up the penetrating Nash, but - playing with five fouls - has to backpedal tentatively through the lane. Bowen rushes to recover and, as he picks up Nash underneath the basket, Nash drops a behind-the-back pass into the lane for Stoudemire, who skies above the rim and lays it in. Once Bowen recovers Nash, Duncan never turns to pick up Amare.
Phoenix 98, San Antonio 97 [0:53.0]
- After the SA timeout, the Spurs inbound the ball into Ginobili in their backcourt. They run a nice set here - Michael Finley fades around a Duncan baseline screen that shakes Finley free of Barbosa for a 12-foot jumper. The shot doesn't fall and, go figure, Shawn Marion collects the remains.
- Nash spends some time dribbling deep in the backcourt against Bowen. He gets the high screen from Amare at about :14 and, as Amare drags toward the hoop, Nash delivers a behind-the-back bounce pass to him at the stripe. Amare doesn't hesitate in directly challenging Duncan. The right-handed layup is good.
Lawler's Law: First team to 100 wins.
Phoenix 100, San Antonio 97 [0:32.5]
- Offense-Defense. For PHX, Thomas for Stoudemire; for SA: Horry for Bowen.
The Spurs inbound in the half-court, and the ball goes over to Ginobili on the left wing against Raja Bell. Once he collects the pass, Ginobili immediately puts it on the floor, gets a clean drive to the hoop, lays it up...bounce, bounce, bounce. It doesn't fall.
The ball dribbles into the corner where Barbosa is the first to arrive on the scene with :22.9 left in the game. Barbosa zips it over to Nash deep in the SA backcourt, with the Spurs in hot pursuit. As Nash races it up, Robert Horry delivers a forearm to Nash's head in front of the scorers table.
Plenty will be written about this incident today. What's unfortunate, other than the unnecessary violence, is that a guy who has furnished us with so many great moments had to lace a beautiful basketball game with something extracurricular. The worst of it is that this perfect series might lose some of its best on-court characters for what could be the greatest Game Five in recent memory.
A flurry of technical, flagrant and garden-variety foul shots results in...
Phoenix 102, San Antonio 98 [0:16]