Even though there are still two first-round series still going on, the second round starts tomorrow. Two matchups are set already.
Because we feel that no one understands the NBA more like the way we wish we understood the NBA than the gang at Free Darko, we've asked them to write up previews of every playoff series throughout the postseason. It will help us understand what's at stake in each series, what matters, what it means for the individuals involved, their fanbases and their history. And there will also be funny, bizarre, non-linear photographs.
After the jump, our the second of our two second-round previews today, the series between the Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs. Whoever wins this series has to be considered the prohibitive favorite to reach the NBA Finals — and probably considered the overall title favorite — so it should be rather fierce. If you want to hop in with your predictions in the comments, please do. Because we type about sports, and people expect it, our prediction is Suns in 6.
And now, Bethlehem Shoals, from Free Darko, after the jump. Enjoy.
With the Warriors having blown the hinges off the gates that guard basketball, these playoffs have changed. It's not just that the "Phoenix or Dallas" narrative of the season has been shattered into so many Texas tears. Suddenly, Golden State has proven that up-tempo play can yield stable, productive results, that it need not doubt itself in the face of the Spurs or Mavs (SPURS JR.). The Warriors may have won the war, but this right here is the battle we've all fretted over since the Suns first found themselves. In recent years, no team has epitomized methodical gloom like San Antonio, and none symbolized freedom of body and mind like the Suns. When the two met in the 2005 Western Conference Finals, it was a clash of styles unlike any before or since. It was also a bloodletting with San Antonio's thumbprints everywhere.
Here's the dirty little secret of this year's Phoenix Suns: They're not so crazy anymore. For one, the whole operation revolves around a pure point guard who makes Stockton's inner loins quiver. Steve Nash may be shaggy, hate war and throw the ball around at kooky angles, but he's a dying breed. While I hesitate to bring out the pop culture bag, Nash is the drugged, sex-crazed Fisher kids taking over dad's mortuary business; he's not changing the position, he's just updating it a bit. Amare Stoudemire learned how to play basketball while rehabbing, making him far more of a real inside presence. Raja Bell is a stopper, Marion is to Buck Williams what Nash is to Stockton, Barbosa is a speedster. The Suns still score a ton, care little for clock management and don't understand the concept of pressure. However, they now do these things with semi-standard position roles and a somewhat set offensive system. In the wake of the Warriors, the Phoenix Suns' long road to respectability is beginning to look a hell of a lot like assimilation.
I know, I know: The Spurs can run. This was actually truer in the 2005 playoffs, when Manu was better than Wade. But hey, the Mavs could run, too, and it didn't save them. When these ultra-disciplined teams go fast, it's a strategy, not an identity. While I hate to get this simplistic about things, the Spurs have Tim Duncan, who is so fantastic a power forward that even talking about it is an insult. That implies that there's still a case to be made, when in fact no one's even fucking with his status as G.P.F.O.A.T. If the Suns are at all emboldened by the Warriors' epochal triumph, they won't be thinking about Popovich's brain ridges, Tony Parker beating Nash off the dribble or Robert Horry and Michael Finley hording their vital energies till just that exact right moment. They need to go at the Spurs and ignore whatever well-concocted response they get; unfortunately, that's still going to leave Duncan, who can reassert the old path with a dominant big man series. If you think Timmie can't get 35-20 every night on Phoenix, you're letting that millennial hype rot out your brain. The difference between the Spurs and Mavs? One has the best post player alive, and the other tried heartlessly to turn Dirk Nowitzki into a tough guy.
After last night, the Suns aren't just playing for a Phoenix championship. Despite having moved away from Golden State's mass chaos model, the Suns are still fun, exciting outsiders. They can still strike a momentous blow for the cause and would be more than capable of a Warriors-like freak out if that matchup came to pass. The question for this series, though, is if they'll learn from Mavs/Warriors and embrace unorthodoxy. In a weird way, their revolutionary credibility is on the line; the Suns have to prove to us that, despite their many alterations, they still believe in the power of the imagination. The more they cleave to their roles, the harder it will be to neutralize the Spurs' rock-solid construction. Predictability and form play right into Pop's cold, dead hands and will run smack dab into Duncan's latest bid for immortality.
Call me a zealot: I think D'Antoni can see the writing on the wall. We saw in 2005 that San Antonio can live with Nash scoring at will, or Amare dropping 40. Get the whole team scattered and deranged, though, and the Suns can put the Spurs on the ropes. It would make it feel more like an upset opportunity, but honestly, Phoenix can only get through this if they make themselves into brash, aggressive underdogs. Let Duncan have his the way San Antonio did with Nash and Stoudemire, while he watches all hell break loose around him. Stephen Jackson doesn't care because he has nothing to lose, and thus is invincible. Take this to heart, Phoenix Suns, and this series can be yours in seven. Otherwise, Spurs in six.