May 3, 2010, 6:20 PM EDT
Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs will meet for the fourth time in
six years, and Steve Nash and friends will try their damnedest to avoid
their fourth elimination in as many tries by the Black and Silver
You see, some will tell you that the Suns are stylistically doomed to
falter in the playoffs. I disagree. What plagues Phoenix is the very
existence of the San Antonio Spurs, who not only present another foil
for the Suns in these playoffs, but have historically been a bit of a
Phoenix didn’t come up short in the playoffs during the D’Antoni era
because their style wasn’t good enough to win or because their offense
wasn’t superior enough to make up for their defense. Phoenix came up
short because they lost to the Spurs three times in four years, and
their one other opponent? The Avery Johnson-led Mavs, who were
constructed with the Spurs model and who scraped by an Amar’e-less Suns
team thanks to a superhuman performance by Dirk Nowitzki.
That’s all. ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ was deemed a failure by so many
because it failed to capture hardware, but all it really did is fail to
beat the Spurs. Other than that, you’re looking at a wildly successful
team that hit just the wrong opponent.
These Suns may not be those Suns, but Steve Nash is still Steve Nash,
and Amar’e Stoudemire is still Amar’e Stoudemire. I guess he used to be
Amare. Whatever. Those two — along with Leandro Barbosa — who are the
few remnants of the SSoL Suns along with head coach Alvin Gentry (who
was a D’Antoni assistant) will get a shot at revenge. Taking a series
over the Spurs now won’t take back those playoff losses, won’t un-bloody Steve Nash’s nose,
and won’t un-implode the roster that was, but it could go a long way in
restoring some prestige to the careers of Nash and Stoudemire.
Both are considered great players, but ultimately flawed ones; Nash’s
two MVP awards are seen by many as tainted, and Stoudemire as a
phenomenal offensive talent that’s perhaps too preoccupied with himself
(the man once nicknamed himself “Isreal” because his game, well, is
real, and subsequently STAT, for “Standing Tall and Talented,”) to
worry about defense.
There may be a bit of truth to each, but neither flaw compares to the
painfully unfair stigma that goes with being a great player that hasn’t
(note that hasn’t is not the same as can’t) won a
championship. Beating the Spurs won’t bring the Suns a title, but it
could — if only for a moment — cure the franchise of the plague that
marred some of the most terrific teams of this era.
That’s why this series isn’t about the title, and all about titles
past. There are no guarantees the Steve Nash would have led the Suns
all the way to the promised land, but wouldn’t it have been fun to see
him try? The Spurs denied the Suns — and NBA fans everywhere — that
opportunity thanks to their smothering defense, their incredible
talent, and their relentless execution. The hot streak Phoenix rode
with into the playoffs has cooled a bit, but they still enter this
series as the higher seed and rolling defensively.
Whether or not they have the bodies to throw at Tim Duncan or the
perimeter defense to stop Manu Ginobili (paging Grant Hill) remains to
be seen, but perhaps this is the way it was supposed to be. D’Antoni’s
gone, and so are Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, Shaquille O’Neal, and the
weight of expectation.
No one expected this level of success from the Suns this year, and
despite their performance, something about Phoenix’s playoff run still
strikes many as improbable. After all, beyond Nash and Amar’e, this
team depends on Jared Dudley, Channing Frye, and Louis Amundson. Goran
Dragic completely turned his career around after a woeful rookie
season. Grant Hill, at 37, is not only a vital offensive cog in the
machine, but their defensive stopper. These Suns carry with them not
only an air of unpredictability, but improbability.
At this point, a series win over the Spurs seems just as improbable.
The match-up problems are still there, and San Antonio looked awfully
good in eliminating Dallas in the first round. However, this series
should be accompanied by one, enduring question: why not? Given
everything Phoenix has been able to accomplish this season, would
toppling the Spurs even qualify as the most surprising? We’re in for a
riveting series, a million storylines, and just as many questions. But
that one question should stand out among many, if only as a reminder of the importance of this season in the Suns-Spurs lore.