Over the next few days, Basket Bawful and Free Darko will be previewing each NBA Playoff series. Basket Bawful looks at the Western Conference today, finishing with the series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Phoenix Suns, which begins Saturday.
It is on, baby! After three years of being used and abused by their arch nemesis, er nemeses, uh, nemesises ... whatever ... the Suns traded the future and a piece of their very souls to bring The Big Lord of the Rings to Phoenix. And they did it for the express purpose of beating the Spurs. Now we get to find out if their plan is going to work, and it's only the first round.
The season series: The Suns won it 3-1.
Bad news for the Suns: I've been avoiding all the obligatory "Man, the Western Conference is crazy!" exclamations in my previews, but man ... the Western Conference really is crazy, isn't it? The Suns finished exactly one game behind the Spurs, yet Phoenix is the sixth seed and San Antonio is the third (despite a second-place finish in their own division). The end result of all these shenanigans is that the Suns will have to win at least one game in the AT&T Center — where the Spurs are 34-7 — if they want to move on.
Good news for the Suns: The Spurs lost only seven times at home all season. Two of those losses came against the Suns. So Phoenix can beat them on the road. In the regular season, anyway. Now they have to prove they can do it in the playoffs. And, as you probably already know, the playoffs are a whole different animal. Not "shark with a buzzsaw-looking thingy in its mouth" different, but definitely different.
Reality check: Like Rudy T. said, you should never underestimate the heart of a champion, and part of me wants to pick the Spurs because, well, they're the Spurs. Manu Ginobili has played (at times) like an MVP, Tim Duncan is still Tim Duncan, Tony Parker continues to be both annoying and French (actually, aren't those synonyms?) and they went 12-3 down the stretch, including wins over the Mavericks, Magic, Rockets, Warriors and Jazz. Then again, they're an old team, Duncan is showing the first slight signs of decay, and one of those three losses in that 12-3 streak came at home to the Suns. They may have the third-best record in the West, but they don't feel as dominant as they used to...and besides, they're not that much better than the Suns in the standings, and certainly not on paper.
Spurs player(s) to watch: Tim Duncan. Parker might have been the Finals MVP last season, and Manu Ginobili might have been MVP-like this season, but Timmy's still the centerpiece of the Spurs' championship buffet. Yet in the two games San Antonio has played against Phoenix since the Shaq trade, Duncan's shooting eye has been off (15-for-40 in two games). Moreover, Shaq's physical defense really seemed to bother him in the late stages of those games. I also can't wait to see if San Antonio's grumpy old men - Brent Barry, Kurt Thomas, Michael Finley, and Robert Horry - have anything other than fumes left in the tank. And don't forget Damon Stoudemire. He won't play much, but the dude is in full championship piggyback mode, so expect him to cheer like crazy from the end of the Spurs' bench. Also, Bruce Bowen ... you know what I mean.
Suns player(s) to keep an eye on: Shaq. He's supposed to be The Big Difference Maker, right? Phoenix can only beat San Antonio if the Diesel can provide interior defense, contain Tim Duncan, and score from the post when Mike D'Antoni's offense bogs down. Amare Stoudemire. People seem to have forgotten this, but Stat averaged 37 PPG against the Spurs in the 2005 Western Conference Finals. That was before his first knee injury. And — especially since the Shaq trade — Stoudemire sure looks like he's got that mojo back, doesn't he? Steve Nash. He needs to at least try to stay in front of Tony Parker. Gordan Giricek. The Suns need him to provide scoring off the bench and the long-range shooting necessary to establish the proper spacing, especially when Shaq's working it down low.
Key(s) to the series: Amare Stoudemire, Boris Diaw and whoever else you want to name need to keep their butts firmly affixed to the Phoenix bench when Bruce Bowen and/or Robert Horry start pulling their inevitable crap.
Prediction: Suns in six. Then we will celebrate good times, come on!