By Fran Blinebury, for NBA.com
Posted May 1 2010 2:28AM
This is the NBA's 21st century version of the Hatfields and the McCoys, though as blood feuds go it has been very one-sided. In the Suns' last five playoff appearances dating back to 2003, the Spurs have been the team that has bounced them four times. In fact, the only time Phoenix has beaten San Antonio in the postseason during the Tim Duncan Era (2000), Duncan did not play due to injury.
The Spurs have broken the Suns' heart and their lips time and time again. There was Duncan's last-second 3-pointer just ahead of the horn. Then there was Robert Horry's hip-checking of Steve Nash into the scorer's table and the resultant suspension of Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for running onto the court, to name just a few bad memories in the desert.
Now the Suns are carrying the mantle of the No. 3 seed in the West and a convincing first-round win over Portland. But here come the Spurs, finishing strong over the last month of the season to slip into the playoffs in the No. 7 spot and then stunning No. 2 seed Dallas to set up another showdown with Phoenix.
1. Who guards Manu Ginobili? (Eventually, Grant Hill.)
2. How do the Suns handle Tim Duncan? (With a lot of the same double-teams they used on LaMarcus Aldridge.)
3. Will Robin Lopez play? (The Suns' center has stepped up rehab for a bulging disc in his back and could make an appearance.)
4. Who starts at the point for San Antonio? (George Hill. Don't change what's working.)
5. Is health an issue for either side? (Steve Nash has been slowed by a hip injury for 1 ½ weeks and needs to be in top form for a Suns win.)
It's all about pace and tempo for the Suns. They want to keep things moving fast and take advantage of opportunities in the transition game to finish at the rim and get themselves plenty of wide open jumpers. Nash and Stoudemire will run the pick and roll as often as possible, trying to get the big man chances close to the basket. Stoudemire has made remarkable strides over the past two or three months of the season, getting better overall feel for the game and not trying to force shots that aren't there. He's become an adept passer in traffic and can find his teammates cutting to the hoop.
The Spurs will have to take care of business on the backboards, because the Suns are a very good offensive rebounding bunch and thrive on getting themselves second chances at the basket. Just as Portland did in the opening round, San Antonio will try to keep plenty of bodies on Nash, who is bothered by a strained hip. They'll play him physically and hope that takes its toll as the series progresses. Somebody has to cover up Jason Richardson's sniping from the wings.
After four championships and taking ownership of the last decade, there are no secrets here. They want to establish Duncan in the low post and run things through him. Ginobili continued his late-season flourish with an outstanding series against Dallas and presents constant matchup problems inside, outside, above the rim, down on the floor, any place on the floor that he gets to with the basketball. Second-year point guard George Hill will likely continue to start at the point with Tony Parker coming off the bench. Hill has shown willingness and an ability to make big plays and have big games on offense.
There will come a time in the series when the Suns turn to the length and the veteran smarts of Grant Hill to match up with Manu Ginobili. The 37-year-old is the best option for stopping Ginobili from getting into the lane, just as he did against Andre Miller in the previous series. Jared Dudley, who has quick hands and a hard-nosed attitude, will come off the bench to get his share of time on Manu.
Though Alvin Gentry isn't afraid to use his much-improved bench even in crucial situations, there's no way he isn't putting the ball into Nash's hands and letting the maestro go to work in the clutch. Pick and roll to Stoudemire, backdoor lob to Richardson or step-back 3-pointer for himself, it's all at his fingertips.
When the game gets late and things get crazy, Gregg Popovich will be watching and waiting along with everyone else in the building to see what Mr. Unpredictable -- Ginobili -- will pull out of his sleeve. Truth is, most of the time not even Ginobili knows what he's going to do before he does it, which only makes him more difficult to stop.
In only the second trip to the playoffs of his career, Richardson has said he wants to be the Suns' wild card and if he can knock down the 3-pointer with the same success rate (51.2 percent) he had in the Portland series, he'll be a tough cover for the Spurs and could provide the difference.
There is nobody wilder whenever Ginobili steps onto the court. But in a series where the Suns are outstanding at going to the boards and getting themselves second chances, Spurs rookie DeJuan Blair could be invaluable with his nose for the ball while cleaning the glass at both ends of the court.
After all the times having their hearts broken by San Antonio, the Suns finally have depth and just enough defense to squeak by in 7.
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