Posted Apr 30 2010 6:25AM
Every hero needs a villain.
Batman has the Joker. Clarice Starling has Hannibal Lecter. Sandra Bullock has Bombshell McGee.
So there were the Phoenix Suns, minutes after finally wrestling the Portland Trail Blazers to the mat, and in the midst of their joyous celebration, already there was a long shadow crossing their threshold.
The Suns could feel the hot breath on the back of their necks just with a mention of the name and get that tingle that goes down your spine when somebody cues up the "Jaws" theme music.
The worst five syllables heard in the desert since "we're out of sun block."
The Suns were still feeling the body blows and wearing the ice packs from their 4-2 first round win over the Blazers that culminated with Thursday night's 99-90 win and already everyone was looking forward to the next brawl.
The Spurs-Suns rivalry is the NBA's blood feud equivalent of Ali-Frazier, except that Smokin' Joe never gets to deliver the final blow.
Of the last five times the Suns have been in the playoffs, they were eliminated by the Spurs on four occasions.
It seems that all Phoenix has experienced at the hands of San Antonio is busted lips and bloodied noses. It's been a long and torturous history of Steve Nash being hip-checked into the scorer's table by Robert Horry, of Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw being suspend by commissioner David Stern, of Tim Duncan getting open 25 feet from the basket and burying his only 3-pointer of the season just before the horn.
"There's a lot of history there, a lot of history," said the Suns' Grant Hill. "But you've got to remember that there are a lot of new players, younger players in this locker room. This is a different team."
They are, in fact, a vastly different Suns team. They're a bunch that relies on a deep bench, a deep sense of resolve and even mixes in a generous helping of defense. A change from the previous Phoenix incarnations, which ended up broken like bone china after all of those run-ins with the rugged, stronger Spurs.
This is a Phoenix team that lived through a miserable 12-18 stretch in the middle of the season, building leads of 14 points or more in 10 different games and blowing those leads seven times. This is a Phoenix team that grew through that experience into this.
The Blazers came from 16 down late in the third quarter to tie the score at 76 with 8:07 left to play. But instead of folding, the Suns stood firm and ran off eight in a row to run away and straight into another meeting with San Antonio.
"It's great," said coach Alvin Gentry. "But I told our guys, we don't look at past history. This team has never played San Antonio in a playoff series. That's the way I look at it. Everyone knows that it will be physical, it will be great."
Nash repeated the mantra that this is a different season and a different set of circumstances and swore that he wouldn't be thinking about seeing stars and getting stitches when he steps onto the floor against the Spurs.
Stoudemire talked again and again of it being a challenge and having to watch video of previous games against the Spurs to see what his next task will be.
They can pretend and they can try to ignore the past, but the Suns won't be able to escape it every time they turn on the TV, open a newspaper or visit a website.
After all, the Hatfields and the McCoys carried their feud on down through generations.
"I think this team and sort of what we've done and how we've done it, the fans have really taken to the team and have enjoyed watching IT come together," Hill said. "I think that would be the case in the next round with anybody we played. But you throw that together -- this special group of guys and how we play -- and send us against the hated Spurs, the fans and the media will eat this up.
"It would mean a lot to beat the Spurs, but you can't get caught up in the emotion of it and the history. You have to disassociate all that stuff and remove all that emotion from the equation and just get down and play basketball.
"All that ill-will and all that hate, it's all in the past. There are a lot of new faces in this locker room and Alvin will do a good job of making sure we stay focused and attend to the task at hand."
Yet if these are the newer, better Suns, who are capable of playing at both ends of the floor and making a real championship run, what better path to travel than through San Antonio. There are demons to be exorcised.
"It would be nice to beat them, yeah," Hill said. "Let's be honest."
Let's be brutally honest and admit that if is a stake to be driven through the heart of their perennial living nightmare, those demons that need exorcising are the Spurs.
"Oh yeah," said Jason Richardson. "I wasn't here for that stuff. There's a lot of bad blood. Anybody who's followed the NBA or watched the NBA understands there's bad blood there. Should make it fun."
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