PHOENIX (AP)—The San Antonio Spurs are reminding everyone again just how good they are.
These are the defending NBA champions, a team that’s won the title three times in the last five years. Now they can complete an unexpected first-round playoff sweep of the reeling Phoenix Suns with a victory here on Sunday.
“We didn’t expect to be up 3-0, obviously,” the Spurs’ Tim Duncan said. “It’s a great feeling, but we’ve got one more to close these guys out.”
The Suns’ Steve Nash said he was “very surprised, stunned” to be down 3-0.
“It’s a difficult spot to be in,” Nash said. “It’s not one we foresaw.”
Difficult is an understatement. No NBA team has come back from 0-3 to win a series.
San Antonio played what coach Gregg Popovich called “probably our best game of the season” in dismantling the Suns on their home court 115-99 on Friday night. It was an unlikely turn of events in a series that began with a compelling 117-115 double-overtime victory for San Antonio, a game the Suns know they gave away.
Friday’s pratfall added fuel to wide speculation among columnists and talk show hosts that Mike D’Antoni’s tenure as coach could end despite a 232-96 record in four seasons in Phoenix.
“I’m not going to go there,” Phoenix general manager Steve Kerr said when asked Saturday about possible personnel changes, repeating that all will be evaluated after the season.
D’Antoni has acknowledged the issue.
“It kind of ticks you off,” he said before Friday’s game, “but I’m a big boy, I can handle it.”
The Suns certainly have not handled the Spurs’ Tony Parker, who is averaging 33 points in the series and had a career-high 41 points along with 12 assists in Game 3. Phoenix took away most of Parker’s easy layups Friday night, but he more than made up for it with wide-open jumpers.
Nash said a change in strategy is essential.
“I think ideally you’d like to trap the pick-and-rolls,” he said. “I’m not sure we have the personnel to do that. … Right now we’re kind of letting our bigs sit way back. It gives Manu (Ginobili) and Tony the freedom to do a lot of things. It will be nice to see if we can make an adjustment.”
The Spurs, who carry a nine-game playoff winning streak into Sunday’s game, are realistic enough not to expect a repeat of their masterful Game 3 performance.
“It’s not that we are playing a bunch of rookies here,” Ginobili said. “Phoenix is a great team with a lot of experience. We just happened to have an unbelievable game. Once everything started so smooth and good for us, it’s like a snowball, then you feel more confident that every shot is going in.”
Most disturbing for the Suns is the way the team simply caved in when things went wrong.
“When they started making shots early, we didn’t know where to turn, and I think it took a lot out of our spirit,” Nash said. “That should be a lesson learned. We’ve got to know that we can’t allow our collective spirit to be affected by them making shots or the way the game’s going.”
Phoenix made its daring late-season trade for Shaquille O’Neal to counter the Spurs’ inside toughness, but it hasn’t worked out that way. O’Neal didn’t talk to reporters after the Suns practiced on Saturday, but D’Antoni defended the big guy.
“I love the trade. I love what Shaq brings to the team,” D’Antoni said. “To place any kind of blame on him, I don’t think it’s fair.”
Nash feels the same way about criticism aimed at D’Antoni.
“Mike’s been great and it’s difficult to see him take the heat,” Nash said. “We all really share the blame equally. As a team, we want to win together and lose together, so I don’t think it’s fair that he takes more than his share of the blame. We’ve all got to take responsibility for where we are.”
The Spurs took the Suns apart methodically on Friday in a performance that reflected the team’s playoff experience. San Antonio ended last season with a sweep of Cleveland in the NBA finals and has won four road playoff games in a row.
The Spurs didn’t practice Saturday, watching film instead.
“They’re a group that really enjoys each other and respects what each other is doing,” Popovich said. “They really believe they owe each other something and are responsible for each other. They just care about playing with one another. I think it shows in what they do. We’ll lose games, we’ll win games, but they’re always trying to do things the right way.”
There were more than a few predictions that Phoenix would win this series, but the Spurs are accustomed to being overlooked.
“They always forget about us,” Parker said. “I’ve gotten used to it now. We just play and when we’re in the finals, then it’s `Oh, by the way, San Antonio is in the finals.”’