SAN ANTONIO(AP) Heading into the fourth quarter of the Suns-Spurs Game 3 on Friday, Steve Nash was looking at his most extensive duty of the playoffs. The 36-year-old with the bad back and recently bad hip, Nash had played 31 minutes through the first three quarters and likely would be needed enough with the game on the line in the fourth that he would exceed the 38 minutes he played in one game in the Portland series.
He got his late-third quarter blow with two minutes to go, and the Suns -- even though they had cut most of an 18-point Spurs lead -- still trailed by six.
Enter Goran Dragic, who had taken only one shot so far in the game and whose play was so suspect that Suns coach Alvin Gentry pulled him in the first half when Phoenix came out after a timeout and encountered a shot-clock violation.
"I saw everything slipping away a little bit," Gentry said.
Dragic was 2-for-12 in the first two games of the series -- including an 0-for-5 stinker in Game 2. But forget about that. Dragic broke a Spurs opponent playoff record -- a guy named Charles Barkley set it 17 years ago -- by scoring 23 points on 9-for-11 shooting in the fourth, and the Suns put one big foot through the door toward advancing to the Western Conference Finals with a 110-96 victory and a 3-0 series lead.
The Spurs led 72-71 heading into the fourth quarter before Dragic, a draft-day trade acquisition between the Spurs and Suns two summers ago, scored more than half of the Suns' 39-point supernova in the final quarter.
"It seemed there was no way to stop them," said Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, who led San Antonio with 27 points. "It was the whole package. It was kind of embarrassing. They were great, and we were pretty poor."
As quickly as Gentry went with the hook to jerk Dragic from the game after that shot-clock violation in the first half (San Antonio led by 16 at that point), he almost sat back and enjoyed what he saw from Dragic in the fourth quarter. When Dragic went on a left-handed power move for a contested layup that gave Phoenix a 100-86 advantage, Gentry giggled and pointed out to the floor, looking over to the scorers' table before more chuckles finally forced him to bend over at the waist.
"He's the teacher's pet," Gentry said. "He wants to please. I don't think you'll meet a better kid in your life."
Gentry reinserted Nash -- but kept Dragic in -- with Phoenix up by 11 and 3:17 to go. But Gentry probably could have kept the old guy on the bench. That's where Amar'e Stoudemire and Jason Richardson stayed for the entire fourth. Richardson scored 21 points with a 5-for-7 night from 3-point territory.
The Spurs had advantages in the paint (40 points to the Suns 34) and second-chance points and battled to a draw in other usually key categories, and the Spurs' chances looked hopeful with an 8-for-16 performance from 3-point territory.
But the Suns even muted that. They outscored San Antonio by 21 points from the 3-point line by shooting 15-for-26. Dragic was 5-for-5, making his first about a minute after Nash went to the bench late in the third. It cut the Spurs' lead to 72-69.
"Steve who?," Gentry started saying after the game. "I'm a little bit shocked, to tell you the truth. I didn't think in a million years we could do that."
This was a game that looked like the Spurs would try to take advantage of Tony Parker obviously being full speed. Gregg Popovich started Parker for the first time since a broken bone in the hand sidelined him for 16 games in March.
But Parker went 5-for-17. Richard Jefferson -- 1-for-9 while missing a slam dunk to open the game -- was worse. George Hill, first off the bench now that Parker is starting, went 1-for-7.
Parker had an X-ray on a shoulder after the game and is expected to have an MRI on Monday. He dinged it on a flagrant foul from Channing Frye.
Hill did manage a 6-for-7 night at the free-throw line, but the rest of the Spurs were woeful. They went 16-for-28 and at one point in the first half missed seven in a row courtesy of Parker and Tim Duncan.
"I think that's going to affect a team mentally to some degree," Popovich said. "I thought we lost a little bit of aggressiveness offensively with that. They got back in the ball game. So that was a huge change in the first half."
The Spurs got an early bump from a couple of role players and shot out to a 28-19 lead after one quarter. Antonio McDyess hit his first three shots and Matt Bonner, 1-for-6 from the floor coming into Game 3, hit both of his 3-point tries.
It was the first time this series the Suns failed to crack the 20-point mark in a quarter. But, since they were held to 15 points in a quarter twice in the Portland series -- including once in a Game 3 victory -- it was nothing for the Suns to brush off.
By turning again to their defense, and watching the Spurs miss 5-of-8 from the free-throw line, the Suns were able to cut the Spurs' 18-point lead through the opening 3:35 of the second quarter to four with two minutes before halftime.
San Antonio shot 9-for-21 from the floor in the second quarter and were unable to make a shot for 5:42 while Phoenix went on a 19-4 run.
Perhaps the Spurs would have kept their lead safe if they could have converted on turnover opportunities. They forced Phoenix into three more turnovers in the first half, but they led only 4-2 in points off mistakes.
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