PHOENIX, June 1 (Ticker) -- Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs made it clear to the Phoenix Suns that defense wins championships.

Duncan had 31 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks as the Spurs returned to the NBA Finals for the third time in seven years with a 101-95 victory over the defenseless Phoenix Suns.

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The second-seeded Spurs closed out the Western Conference finals in five games, winning all three contests at America West Arena. They began the series by taking a pair of shootouts from the top-seeded Suns but fell back on their reliable defense in the clincher.

"For us to beat them, we have to make some stops because we are not as good as them offensively," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "They are better than us offensively, so that's what they try to do."

Backstopping the effort was Duncan, who continues to assert himself as the best player in the world. He was in the middle of a pivotal defensive stand at the outset of the second half and scored the biggest basket of the game down the stretch.

"We didn't really find an answer for Tim," Suns guard and NBA MVP Steve Nash said. "He's just such a terrific player."

As they did all series, the Spurs had their hands full with Amare Stoudemire, who had a playoff career-high 42 points and 16 rebounds. But they made stops when they had to, which was more than the Suns could say.

"We're going to keep the (up-tempo) style, but we have got to get a lot better defensively," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni admitted.

After whittling a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit to 93-90, the Suns had the Spurs inbounding with three seconds on the shot clock. Duncan took a lob pass in the lane and drove, tipping in his miss for a five-point lead with 2:14 to go.

"I didn't know if it had a chance to go in," Duncan said. "But as soon as I hit the ground, I just went back up with it, popped (it) back up to me. I had a chance to tip it in."

"I thought the big back-breaker was the three seconds they had the ball out of bounds and Tim Duncan missed the shot, tipped it back in, got (the lead) back up to five," D'Antoni said. "That hurt us."

Robert Horry made a steal and Stoudemire missed a scoop shot rebounded by Duncan, who worked a give-and-go with a wide-open Tony Parker for a layup and a 97-90 bulge with 50 seconds remaining.

Led by Nash, the run-and-gun Suns topped the NBA in scoring this season. However, they were last in defense, the staple of the Spurs. Phoenix was held below 106 points just twice in the postseason, both times by San Antonio.

"On the whole, we're a little better than them defensively, so we had to make those stops and we made them in the third and fourth quarter that allowed us to have an opportunity to win the game," Popovich said.

San Antonio trailed, 50-49, at halftime but forced Phoenix into 2-of-15 shooting and five turnovers over the first 7 1/2 minutes of the third quarter, opening a 13-point lead.

"They can lock you up sometimes and they did a good job defensively on us," D'Antoni said. "We just didn't seem able to move the ball and get into our stuff. We weren't real fluid."

"We had to go out and play a good strong third quarter and make that push and put some doubt in their mind and put some fear in them," said Horry, who had seven points, 11 rebounds and five assists.

Manu Ginobili had 19 points, eight rebounds and six assists and Parker scored 18 points for the Spurs, who will have seven days off as they await the winner of the Eastern Conference finals between Miami and Detroit.

San Antonio, which won titles in 1999 and 2003 behind Duncan, has home-court advantage in the NBA Finals.

"I won't obsess over it because it is what it is," Popovich said. "We'll just try to figure out how to keep guys in shape, how to stay sharp and do the best job we can."

Nash had 21 points and 10 assists and Joe Johnson scored 14 points for the Suns, whose 3-point shooting deserted them. They made just 5-of-17 from the arc, three from Jim Jackson, who tried to pick up the slack for slumping forwards Shawn Marion and Quentin Richardson.

"My stomach is sick right now," Marion said.

Duncan made 14-of-24 shots, grabbed six offensive rebounds and handed out four assists. He was uncharacteristically animated after bouncing back from a poor Game Four in which he scored just 15 points and made just 3-of-12 free throws.

"I knew I had to put together a better performance than I did the last game, whether it be lack of focus the last game or just a bad night," Duncan said. "I didn't want to have one of those again and I came in here just to rectify that."

Stoudemire and Nash combined for 39 points in the first half but could not get going early in the third quarter. Parker had two 3-pointers and Duncan a pair of blocks before sinking two free throws for a 69-56 advantage with 4:27 to go.

"The third quarter was the telling point," D'Antoni said. "We just didn't shoot the ball well. We kind of got into a little bit of a 1-on-1 kind of mode. Once they get you down a little bit, this is a tough team to come back on."

"I hit those two big threes and that gave me confidence," Parker said.

Three-point plays by Horry and Duncan made it 84-72 before Stoudemire began attacking the rim. Working primarily against Duncan, he scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, including consecutive dunks that made it 91-87 with 3:21 to play.

"I grew a lot as a player in this postseason," Stoudemire said. "I think my confidence level went up and I think my IQ as a basketball player has gotten better."

"With his athleticism and his ability, just knowing that he's going to get even better, it's kind of scary," Duncan said.

Ginobili weaved for a layup and Jackson drilled a 3-pointer to set up Duncan's big hoop.