SAN ANTONIO (AP)—It’s a matchup that seemed destined for later in the playoffs.
Last year, many thought their heated second-round series was the real finals. The Spurs won in six games on their way to a fourth NBA championship.
“It’s a heck of a matchup. It’s a big challenge for us,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “We’ve got to try to figure something out. They’re obviously a team that can win the whole deal, and we got them in the first round.”
Even though it’s earlier this postseason, their series that starts Saturday in San Antonio could be the best of the first round, for one big—really big— reason.
The run-and-gun Suns acquired Shaquille O’Neal in a blockbuster midseason trade. With the aging 7-foot-1 superstar on the roster, they’ll be looking to boost their defense against the defending champions.
“They have both things there. They can go small and run it a little bit more or they can slow it down and go big,” Spurs star Tim Duncan said. “It gives them a different dynamic on both ends and obviously makes them a better team.”
Duncan was sure to add: “Luckily enough I think we can do both, too. We can push the ball against them, we can slow it down.”
The Suns beat the Spurs both times they played after O’Neal came on board. That included a 96-79 thumping in San Antonio a little more than a week ago. The Spurs allow 90.5 points a game, the fewest in the West.
Amare Stoudemire, who will be freed up a bit from having to contend against Duncan down low, called O’Neal a “difference-maker.”
“With their (the Spurs’) size, post play and offensive rebounding, it has been difficult for us to contend with,” Suns guard Steve Nash said. “We’ve been close, but hopefully this is going to take us over the top.”
The Spurs’ have their own big man, though. While O’Neal may have a better go at containing Duncan, Suns coach Mike D’Antoni knows not to discount the two-time MVP.
“Don’t put a cross on him yet. He’s still pretty dag gone good,” D’Antoni said. “I don’t want us to think, ‘Oh that’s taken care of.”’
Besides the O’Neal-Duncan matchup, there’s also a revenge factor looming in this series, even though both team says last year’s fireworks are in the past.
First, there were nicks and scrapes: Nash’s nose gash, Manu Ginobili’s bruised eye.
And words: Stoudemire called the Spurs a “dirty team,” singling out defender Bruce Bowen in particular.
Then, with tensions already high, came the series-changing foul.
San Antonio’s Robert Horry bumped Nash hard in the waning seconds of Game 4, sending him into the scorer’s table. The ensuing scuffle resulted in one-game suspensions of Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the bench area, and a two-game suspension for Horry. The Spurs beat the depleted Suns in Game 5 and closed out the series at home in Game 6.
“We’re not concerned with last year, because it’s in the past, it’s a different team they have now,” Bowen said.
There’s more at stake for both teams than beating a postseason nemesis.
The Spurs are on a quest for back-to-back titles, something they weren’t able to do after they won championships in 1999, 2003 and 2005.
For the Suns, this may be among their last chances to put it all together with the current core. Two-time MVP Nash, veteran Grant Hill and O’Neal are 34, 35 and 36, respectively.
O’Neal said he feels better than he has in “a long time”—including the title year in Miami.
Hill missed the regular-season finale with a groin injury, but said he “felt pretty good” Friday.
Not that the Spurs are spring chickens, either. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is never shy about wryly noting that they’re the oldest team in the league.
“I think experience is a good thing. Last year we were old, too. It’s not like last year we were the youngest,” said Ginobili, who as a reserve led the team in scoring during the regular season, followed by Duncan and point guard Tony Parker. “So, it worked.”
The Spurs, not surprisingly, maintained nearly their entire roster following the four-game sweep of Cleveland in June’s finals. Their biggest change came in February when they traded Seattle for Kurt Thomas, who was with the Suns last season.
The Spurs battled various health issues throughout the season that sidelined their Big Three for games at a time. Ginobili played in the regular-season finale after sitting out three games with a groin strain. He said he’s ready to play Saturday.
So are his teammates and the Suns.
“It’s going to be a knockdown, drag out,” D’Antoni said. “There’s not going to be any fighting, but there’s going to be some very hard basketball played. And I think it should be that way. This is the playoffs and there’s nothing wrong with that. They’re going to be in our face and we’re going to be in their face.”
AP Sports Writers Andrew Bagnato and Bob Baum in Phoenix contributed to this report.