Ten Questions: Suns-Spurs
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Now that the No. 1 overall seeded Mavericks and their 67 regular-season wins are out of the playoff race, the 61-win Suns and the 58-wins Spurs are the next best squads remaining. Time to decide who is better. Phoenix and San Antonio are set to square off in a second-round matchup with the feel of a championship bout. As the two winningest teams left in the posteason prepare to play, NBA.com poses 10 questions surrounding the teams' second-round meeting:


1. WHAT WILL IT BE, OFFENSE OR DEFENSE?

In January, 2003 the NFL's No. 1 defense (Tampa Bay) clashed with the league's No. 1 offense (Oakland) for the first time in Super Bowl history and defense prevailed as the Bucs ran away with the victory.

Now it's the NBA's turn to pit scorers vs. stoppers. The Suns trot out the most potent offense in the league (110.2 points per game scored), while the Spurs possess the stingiest defense (90.09 ppg allowed). Something has got to give.

Delve deeper into the stats and peer at the teams' point differentials and you find that San Antonio (+8.42) had a slight advantage over Phoenix (+7.30) during the regular season. What is the over/under on hearing the old maxim, "Defense wins championships," by the broadcast booth if this series goes seven games? I'm setting the bar at about 39 and taking the over.

2. WHICH BACK-TO-BACK MVP HAS THE EDGE?

One's a point guard, the other a power forward. One hails from Canada, the other grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands. One's biggest victories are three wins spread out over two Conference Finals, the other has three rings from winning the whole thing three times.

They are an unlikely pair to be coupled together, but then again, it's each of their pair of Maurice Podoloff Trophies that make it a natural comparison.

Tim Duncan, the league's MVP in 2001-02 and '02-03, and Steve Nash, the recipient in '04-05 and '05-06, are the catalysts for their squads and whoever can make the game easier for their teammates will probably be the one moving on to the next round.

Nash is coming off a finer '06-07 campaign than either of his award-winning seasons. The 11-year vet averaged 18.6 points (on a career-high .532 shooting percentage) and dished out a career-best 11.6 assists per game.

Duncan, in his 10th year, put up 20 points and 10.6 rebounds per game and bounced back from '05-06 when he averaged less than 20 ppg for the first time in his career.

The two will rarely go head-to-head, it will probably only happen when the Spurs decide to switch on high pick and rolls, but whoever has the bigger individual impact will be likely be on the team that takes the series.

3. WILL WE SEE THE AMARE OF 2005?

I wrote it in the opening entry of my Suns-Lakers blog last week, but it's worth revisiting:

"The 2005 Western Conference Finals vs. San Antonio was the finest basketball of (Stoudemire's) career. Look at the numbers (the Spurs won 4-1):

Game 1: 41 points, nine rebounds
Game 2: 37, eight
Game 3: 34, 11
Game 4: 31, five
Game 5: 42, 16

That's a streak of dominance not seen since Tom Hanks had his Philadelphia-Forrest Gump-Apollo 13 run in the mid '90s."

His 2005 series works out to averages of 37 points and 9.8 rebounds per game for STAT. Fast foward to this year and consider Stoudemire is coming off a five-game romp of the Lakers in which he averaged 24.2 and 13.6 and hope that the NBA's statistician assigned to the series has fast enough fingers to record all the numbers that Amare will be racking up.

4. REMEMBER 2003?

Forgive us for being a tad upset minded here at NBA.com these days, but after Stephen Jackson splashed threes all over the Mavs en route to leading the feel-good, underdog Warriors to the second round yesterday, can you blame us?

Back in the First Round in 2003, the script was flipped and Jackson was on the top-seeded Spurs trying to stave off elimination by the pesky, upstart Suns. The No. 8 seed Phoenix took Game 1 thanks to a Stephon Marbury buzzer beater, but couldn't complete the Cinderella story a la Golden State and ended up falling to San Antonio in six.

Oh how times have changed. Now it's the Suns who are the No. 2 seed with the No. 3 seeded Spurs trying to pull off the (mild) upset.

5. WHO HAS THE BETTER LOCK-DOWN DEFENDER?

The Suns' Raja Bell and the Spurs' Bruce Bowen are two players cast from the same mold. Both have similar frames (Bowen is 6-7, 200; Bell is 6-5, 210). Both bounced around to several teams before finding a niche on a perennial championship contender (Bowen with Miami, Boston and Philly; Bell with Philly, Dallas and Utah). Both attended mid-majors in college (Bowen at Cal State Fullerton; Bell with Florida International). Both have improved their game to become reliable three-point shooters (Bowen is .388 career from deep, Bell is .412).

But the way these two 2007 All-Defensive First Team honorees are the most similar is their reputations as tough, physical and fundamentally-sound perimeter defenders. Even though they both see time on the court playing either the two or three positions, they will rarely match up with each other. Bowen's services will be used on James Jones, Shawn Marion and maybe even Nash, while Bell will have Manu Ginobili, Michael Finley and Brent Barry in his crosshairs.

6. CAN THE SPURS' OLD MEN FIND THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH?


Andy Hayt/Getty Images/NBAE


Way back in 1996-97, Robert Horry and Michael Finley were twenty-something teammates on the Suns. Since then, Horry has won four rings with the Lakers and Spurs and Finley had a very successful run as the Maverick's go-to guy before settling into his supporting role with San Antonio.

The 34-year old Finley shot 19-for-36 from three in the Spurs' first-round series with Denver and the 36-year old Horry pulled out another one of his magical late threes to help seal Game 3. Will they continue to be effective against the younger and more athletic Suns?

7. HOW IMPORTANT IS TONY PARKER TO THE SPURS?

Asides from bringing the team free publicity from his relationship with Eva Longoria, Tony Parker gives Gregg Popovich a coach on the court.

Tim Duncan may be the Spurs' most valuable player, but he can't get the ball in the low post unless he has Parker taking care of the ball. For Parker that means withstanding 75 feet of defensive pressure up the court, which is taxing enough, but then knowing when to pass and when to call his own number.

Even at just 6-2 and 180 pounds, Parker is one of the best guards in the league at getting to the paint and finishing. He shot an incredible .520 from the field this season.

But it isn't just about offense this series. Parker will be given the task of trying to slow down Nash and make him work for everything he gets.

8. WHO IS THE BIGGER X-FACTOR: MANU OR MARION?

Ginobili doesn't even start, but averaged 13.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists vs. Denver. Marion never gets the headlines and was snubbed from both the First and Second All-Defensive Teams this season, but put up 18.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.8 steals vs. Los Angeles.

Manu gives a rigid-offensive team like the Spurs a free-wheeling scorer that is dangerous off the dribble or from deep. Marion gives a defensively-challenged team like the Suns a full-court defender that can guard all five positions.

Keep an eye on these guys. Whomever can spark their team on a more consistent basis will probably be marching on to the Western Conference Finals.

9. WILL THIS BE LIKE '93 FOR PHOENIX?

The last time the Suns beat the Spurs in the second round was 1993 when Charles Barkley and Co. downed David Robinson and Co. in six games.

Phoenix went on to make just their second NBA Finals apperance in franchise history when Michael Jordan's Bulls beat them for the title.

Nash and Co. are hoping that at least part of history will repeat itself and a series win against San Antonio will propel the Suns back on The Finals stage. If they can get there, then they'll try to re-write history and make up for the team's 1975-76 championship loss to Boston and the '93 loss to Chicago.

10. WHO HAS THE COACHING EDGE?

This really goes back to question No. 1. If Popovich can will his defensive, slow-down style of play on the Suns, then the Spurs are favorites. If D'Antoni can implement his offensive, up-tempo style of play on the Spurs, then the Suns are favorites.

These are two men at the top of their craft. Pop took home Coach of the Year Award in '02-03 and the Red Auerbach Trophy on D'Antoni's mantel was engraved in '04-05.

It's not a question of experience -- they both have a ton of it. It's not a question of discipline -- they have their teams' respect. It will comes down to unseen motivation and miniscule matchup adjustments between these two in order to determine who does the better job.

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