Suns Use New and Improved Defense
PHOENIX, Jan. 7 (Ticker) -- The Phoenix Suns gave the San Antonio Spurs a firsthand look at their improved defense.
Steve Nash had 22 points and 10 assists as the Suns flashed their new and improved defense in a 91-86 victory over the Spurs, who had a five-game winning streak snapped.
Shawn Marion scored 11 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter for the Suns, who were playing at a pace far more comfortable to the Spurs but made most of the big shots down the stretch and evened the season series at one game each.
The teams met last year in the Western Conference finals, when the Spurs exploited the porous defense of the run-and-gun Suns and won the series in five games. Phoenix spent the entire offseason making moves designed to improve its defense and held a foe under 90 points for the 12th time this season - one less than all of last season.
Some of those acquisitions were forward Kurt Thomas, swingman Boris Diaw and guard Raja Bell, all of whom were on the floor down the stretch. Thomas provided low-post defense against superstar forward Tim Duncan and Bell hounded All-Star guard Manu Ginobili.
"To win one when we are not clicking on offense, that wasn't the case last year," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. "You are going to have to grind some games out against San Antonio. Our offense will be better when Amare (Stoudemire) comes back, but now we have to grind these games out.
"You have to play good defense to win a championship. We know that and we knew that last year. We are trying to get better and we are better with those guys."
Meanwhile, Nash and Marion took care of most of Phoenix's offense, which remains very explosive. They fueled a 9-1 burst that gave the Suns the lead for good.
After a pair of 3-pointers by Robert Horry gave San Antonio a 74-72 lead, Nash sank a 3-pointer and James Jones made a tough shot. Duncan hit a free throw, but Marion had a hoop, then got behind the defense and took a pass from Nash for a dunk and an 81-75 lead with 2:48 to play.
Duncan made two foul shots, but Nash answered with a 3-pointer. After Ginobili sank a 3-pointer, Bell drilled a long jumper for an 86-80 lead with 1:09 remaining, and the Suns sank 5-of-8 free throws in the final 30 seconds.
"We didn't win too many game last year with our defense. It gives you a new source of pride," Nash said. "It wasn't pretty or anything like the last outing. It was not our typical game. I don't know where it comes from, but we got a lot of grit and determination and we don't like to get scored on."
"The last five minutes told the tale," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "They played smart down the stretch, made very few mistakes and we were the opposite. Too many mental errors the last five minutes got them the game."
Diaw scored 18 points, Thomas added 12 and Jones 10 for the Suns, who used just seven players. They overcame a season-low 42 points in the first half and a 44-32 beating on the boards to win for the seventh time in eight games.
"They built this team to be a really good team on defense and play good defense when it counts, when the clock is running out," Diaw said.
Duncan and Ginobili scored 19 points each and Horry added 15 for the Spurs, who shot just 41 percent (33-of-80). Duncan swept 12 boards and Horry 11.
"We wanted to come in here and not only do well but do well back-to-back," Duncan said. "We haven't won any back-to-back throughout the season. I thought we had a good performance together we just mad too many mistakes down the stretch."
The matchup between Ginobili and Bell got a bit chippy in the third quarter, when both players were involved in a scrum for a loose ball.
The Suns took a 65-60 lead into the final period, when Horry scored 10 points. His consecutive 3-pointers gave the Spurs their first lead since 14-13.