Here they are again, opening the Western Conference semifinals in Phoenix on Monday night, the Suns seeded No. 3 and San Antonio No. 7.
These are not the Spurs and Suns of the past, though. George Hill(notes) and Richard Jefferson(notes) fill important roles for San Antonio, Bruce Bowen(notes) and Robert Horry(notes) are long gone. The Suns have a deep bench and Jason Richardson(notes), who averaged 23.5 points against Portland in the first round and shot 51 percent from 3-point range. Phoenix even plays periods of inspired defense, for heaven’s sake.
Then there’s Suns 7-footer Robin Lopez(notes), who when he was healthy defended Duncan one-on-one. A back injury (bulging disk) has sidelined Lopez since March 26 and the second-year pro from Stanford has been slowly coming back since. He even scrimmaged some full-court on Sunday. Lopez is to be re-evaluated by a specialist on Monday and it’s possible he could play a few minutes in Game 1.
“Maybe,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “We’ll have to see how he is after today.”
Yet for all the talk of Hill’s talent, Jefferson’s roller-coaster season following his signing as a free agent, the Suns’ energetic reserves, Richardson’s offense and Lopez’s return, this series is likely to be decided by those Steve Nash(notes) calls “the usual suspects.”
“Guys, you know it’s all about Manu,” Gentry said. “When Manu goes, Tim is going to do what Tim does. Tony, he’s going to play well, the speed and quickness that he has. When Richard had those 17-point games they seem to really step up. And when they shoot well from 3, they almost never lose.”
The same could be said of the Suns when Richardson is on. Phoenix is 29-4 this season when he’s scored at least 20.
Nash sat out practice for the second day in a row to rest his sore right hip. He didn’t talk to reporters on Sunday, but said Saturday that he expects the time off to be of great benefit Monday night.
The 36-year-old point guard has been at the center of the playoff drama with San Antonio in the past and his role is no less crucial this time. He pushes the offense and establishes the tempo and ball movement that makes the Suns successful. Unlike the Phoenix teams the Spurs played in 2005 and 2007, these Suns are not truly a fastbreak squad. Their strength lies in spacing the floor and establishing a rapid rhythm to keep defenders on their heels.
“It’s like super-transition `D’ against these guys,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “They’re really playing well, and the best shooting team ever, basically, from 3. Great chemistry, sharing the ball, playing ‘D’. Alvin and his group have done a great job. The players have really bought in, and they do a lot of things really well.”
Amare Stoudemire has a 24.6-point playoff average against the Spurs. Discount his rookie season of 2003, and it jumps to 28.8. This regular season, as Phoenix won two of three from the Spurs, Stoudemire averaged 32.7 points and 11.3 rebounds.
“I’ve had great offensive games against the Spurs, but I think now defensively is where we’ve taken that next step,” Stoudemire said, “and it’s all about the team. We’ve got to make sure that we all have a great game as well. If one player has a phenomenal game and the rest don’t,’ then it’s not as fun, not as good. So all of us have to make sure we chime in.”
Gentry wouldn’t say what his defensive matchups would be, but at some point expect Grant Hill(notes), Phoenix’s best defender, to try to slow down Ginobili. The Suns won four of five after Gentry switched Hill to guard Andre Miller(notes) following Phoenix’s Game 1 loss to Portland.
Hill said Phoenix’s season turned around when the team began to emphasize defensive effort.
“I think we’ve learned that it can be fun,” he said. “We enjoy locking a team down. With that being said, obviously we’re going against one of the best half-court executing team, one of the best coaches out there. So we’re certainly going to be challenged, but I like where we are going into this series in terms of being prepared on both ends of the court.”
Ginobili, meanwhile, tried out a mask in practice but has decided to continue using a bandage over his broken nose. He missed only five minutes after catching an elbow from Dirk Nowitski and breaking his nose in Game against Dallas in the first round.
Popovich and Gentry were assistants under Larry Brown with San Antonio 21 years ago and remain friends.
“I got a whole case of wine from Pop yesterday,” Gentry said, “right from his Oregon vineyard.”
Will Gentry reciprocate?
“I don’t own a winery, OK?” Gentry said. “I’ll go in and get him a nice bottle of Boone’s Farm. I’m sure Pop will appreciate that.”
Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber in San Antonio contributed to this report