-- As we inch closer to The NBA Finals, talk around the water cooler is heating up. Four teams are still alive in the 2005 Playoffs but only two can advance for a chance to play for a title. Here's a look at each series, and what the players -- and columnists -- are saying:
Western Conference Finals
Down 3-0 and facing elimination from the playoffs Monday night, the Phoenix Suns defeated the San Antonio Spurs on the road, 111-106, to force a Game 5 in Phoenix. The Spurs appeared to be headed for a series sweep with a seven-point advantage at intermission, but the Suns duo of Joe Johnson, who missed the first two games with a fractured orbital bone, and Shawn Marion, who had been shut down all series by Bruce Bowen, stepped up to score 22 of Phoenix's 35 third quarter points in a period in which Phoenix established control of the game.
Stoudemire's block on Duncan secured the win.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
"Maybe this is the way the series would have been had Joe Johnson not been sidelined until Game 3 by a fracture near his left eye," wrote Mike Kahn on Foxsports.com.
"Joe Johnson is very important for us. I think we see that," Phoenix head coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Getting him back is definitely a blessing."
The Spurs also received solid efforts from its supporting cast, who kept the game close until the buzzer sounded, but were ironically held back in their effort to close the series by the poor free throw shooting of center Tim Duncan.
"With Manu Ginobili rumbling for a highlight-reel 28 points, and Bruce Bowen and Robert Horry each draining clutch fourth-quarter triples and registering 15 bonus points apiece, it's an overstatement to say that the Spurs collectively caved," wrote Mark Stein on ESPN.com. "It was Tim Duncan, stunningly. Riding a run of 25 consecutive makes at the free-throw line, Duncan missed three of his first four attempts in Game 4 and cratered from there.
"He wound up missing nine of 12 attempts from the line, including an air ball, and looked as tentative as you can look when you're still going for 15 points and 16 boards. The Suns double-teamed Duncan harder than they have until now, with Johnson doing most of the doubling instead of the smaller [Steve] Nash, and Duncan struggled to answer."
"The Spurs are like chameleons, all right," wrote Buck Harvey in the San Antonio Express-News. "They can play fast; they can play slow. And sometimes their slippery, reptilian fingers let free throws and jump shots slip away. Tony Parker has done this as recently as the previous series, and his six turnovers and 12 missed shots were a marked departure from what he had been doing.
"But the lizard king Monday night was the free-throw king the game before. How does Tim Duncan go from 15 for 15 at the line to 3 for 12? As easily as he goes from San Antonio back to Phoenix."
Suns center Amare Stoudemire clearly outplayed Duncan down the stretch, scoring 11 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter and making several key plays on both ends of the floor.
With Spurs down just one with under two minutes remaining, the third-year pivot muscled his way over Duncan for a layup. At the other end, he came up with a strip of Duncan, who was making his move in the paint. Stoudemire then drew a foul and converted a free throw to push the lead to four with just over a minute left. Bowen followed with a three-pointer, but Stoudemire answered with a layup. He then secured the win by rejecting what appeared would be an uncontested Duncan slam with 34.9 seconds left.
"Unbelievable two minutes or whatever it was for him," Suns guard Steve Nash said. "Even as a teammate, we just were in awe. He was all over the place. Obviously the block was incredible. He had one finish down the lane where I thought Tim tried to foul him and they didn't call it and he still finished the play. I think he really raised his game a level tonight."
"Those are plays that needed to happen down the stretch," said Stoudemire, who had been criticized for his defense on Duncan during the first three games of the series. "We needed some stops and I stepped up and tried to make that block on Tim."
"Sometimes you have to lose and get down and people just treat you like a dog to figure it out," D'Antoni said. "You do it with your heart and brains and tonight we did that, and we just got to do it one more time. And then one more time. I think we did grow up a lot."
Over the first three games, Phoenix had just 28 fast break points compared to Monday night's 26. However, keeping San Antonio off the offensive glass still proved to be a problem, as the Spurs held a 22-6 advantage in second chance points.
"The Suns will not win this series," wrote Tony Mejia on Sportsline.com. "Monday's victory only gives them another opportunity to test their mettle and soak up knowledge in game situations. However, if responding in the manner they did in the second half becomes habit-forming, this is a team we're going to hear from consistently for the next half-decade, even if Johnson bolts for green as a free agent."
Eastern Conference Finals
Miami emerged victorious Sunday night against Detroit, 113-104, to take a 2-1 West Finals lead. Tonight, the clubs square off in Game 4 at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
Shaq says last year's champs aren't going to just throw in the towel despite trailing 2-1.
Jesse Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
"We've been here before," Rasheed Wallace told the Houston Chronicle. "We were down 2-1 to Indiana in the last round. Down 3-2 to New Jersey last year."
"That's why our spirits are so high, because we've had our backs against the wall." he continued. "I know that we can answer, come out and answer that bell with our backs against the wall. So I'm not worried about it too much."
Prior to Game 3, Detroit had not allowed an opponent to reach 100 points in regulation 37 consecutive home playoff games, a run that broke the previous NBA record of 36 by the Minneapolis Lakers from 1949-55.
"Before the conference finals, the Pistons, led by defensive player of the year Ben Wallace, averaged about six blocks and seven steals per game in this year's playoffs," Michael Larson wrote in the Palm Beach Post. "In Game 3, the Pistons managed to block only one shot, and 6-2 backup guard Lindsey Hunter was responsible for it. So, what happened to the 'D' that won the championship for the Pistons last year?"
"They got a lot of layups. A shooting percentage like that, shooting 60 percent in the first half, over 50 for the game," said Detroit guard Chauncey Billups. "I mean, you shoot that kind of percentage, it doesn't matter who you're playing, you're going to score 100 points."
"A team that shoots 60 percent in the first half, it's not by luck. They made shots, got some easy baskets and made some tough jump shots," said Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince. "Like I said, despite all that, we were down two points. That's all we did wrong. Obviously the mental breakdown as far as the fourth quarter, we weren't able to get it done."
The Heat led by as many as 10 points in the third quarter before the Pistons rallied. The Pistons opened the fourth quarter with an 11-2 run and took an 86-81 lead when Wade went to the bench with his fifth foul with 7:56 remaining. From there veteran Miami guard Eddie Jones, who shot poorly in Game 2, ignited a 19-5 charge, scoring nine of his 19 points for the game.
"We kept our poise, man. We didn't lose it," Jones said.
"Eddie was huge for us," Heat center Alonzo Mourning said. "All you've got to do is give him a little bit of daylight and he's going to make some good things happen."
Miami's superstar tandem of Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal also came up big in the win. O'Neal scored 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting in the first half and converted six straight free throws down the stretch. Wade had his second consecutive 30-plus point performance, perhaps proving his 7-of-25 shooting display in Game 1 was a fluke.
"Shaq was phenomenal, Dwyane's first half doesn't get much better than that, and they had some guys come in and make huge plays," Pistons coach Larry Brown said.
"The Palace was very quiet," wrote Rob Parker in the the Detroit News. "Those who didn't jump in their cars and flee long before it was over were still in disbelief by what had transpired Sunday. If the Pistons are eliminated by the Heat, they'll look back at this game as the reason why."
"They're the champs and they're not just going to give up," O'Neal said in the Detroit Free Press about the remainder of the series. "They're going to be coming with everything they've got. We just have to match that and if we do that, we should be OK."