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Silver and black eye

The San Antonio Spurs never much cared about endearing themselves, starting with sullen star Tim Duncan and grumpy coach Gregg Popovich. They won three championships wearing Al Davis' colors, but the kids never took to those black-and-silver jerseys the way the Oakland Raiders did. For so long, San Antonio has tortured the public with professionalism and poise.

After a decade of inspiring indifference, if not a grudging admiration, one series has suddenly reshaped and repackaged the Spurs. They'll no longer be simply celebrated as the relentlessly resourceful champions, but they'll also be derided as dirty, cheap-shot artists. They've earned it in these Western Conference semifinals against the Phoenix Suns.

What's worse, they've gotten away with it. Nothing happened when Bruce Bowen sideswiped Amare Stoudemire and kneed Steve Nash, and two games for Robert Horry drilling Nash into the scorer's table does little to balance the Game 5 suspensions for Stoudemire and Boris Diaw.

In some ways, the series has done irreparable damage to the Spurs' reputation. They've never cared about popularity, but they do relish respect. If they win this series, they'll do so with the taint of bad behavior and bad character.

Popovich doesn't help the Spurs' credibility when he defends Horry's vicious hit as "just an end-of-the-game foul." That's a load of crap and Popovich knows it. The Spurs are no less tough guys for Popovich, maybe the best pure coach in the NBA, to acknowledge that Horry's hit was over the line.

Horry had always been Big Shot Bob in the playoffs, never Cheap Shot Bob, but something about the tone of this series made Nash an appealing target late in Game 4. Once again, San Antonio provoked, the Suns reacted and they'll be playing at a steep incline without Stoudemire on Wednesday.

The Spurs are winning the battles on technicalities and letter of the law, but they're losing on spirit and intent. San Antonio hasn't gotten away with murder in this series, just aggravated assault. Rest assured, the NBA would love nothing more than figure a way to get the ratings-free Spurs out of these playoffs and move along Steve Nash and the space-age Suns.

Only, it doesn't work that way. The judgment was fair on Tuesday, suspending Horry for two games and delivering the hardest hit of all – Stoudemire and Boris Diaw out for Game 5.

"It's not a matter of fairness, it's a matter of correctness," NBA vice president of operations Stu Jackson said Wednesday.

Listen, all these people screaming for the league to selectively enforce the rule about leaving the bench for an altercation are missing the point. This rule is simple: It is there to stop that first punch getting thrown. That's it. Assistant Marc Iavaroni should've done his job on Phoenix's bench. For all the clipboards and notes these armies of assistants are buried under, they have but one job: When all hell breaks loose, stop the superstar.

Stop Stoudemire.

But this doesn't excuse the instigating San Antonio has done in the series. The shame is, the Spurs are good defensively and too talented to reduce themselves to this garbage. Bowen believed he could intimidate Stoudemire and Nash with those hits. It didn't happen. Yes, the Suns are the ultimate finesse team, but they've shown it shouldn't be mistaken for softness.

The irony is that, earlier this season, Popovich was livid with Jackson for telephoning Bowen without his knowledge to warn Bowen about sliding his foot under the ankles of jump shooters again. Vince Carter, Steve Francis and Isiah Thomas had complained about that with Bowen, and Popovich did not want Jackson getting into his star defender's head about the way he played the game. As it turns out, Horry probably never would've felt so empowered to slam Nash had Jackson punished Bowen for his transgressions in the series.

San Antonio is never a brash team, but it's never been so arrogant. The Spurs are a great franchise, great champions, but they've honored those black-and-silver colors in all the wrong ways this series. Right now, they're behaving like they're bullet-proof, like they can do whatever they want on the floor. So far, the NBA has given San Antonio no reason to feel otherwise.

Now, it's on the Suns. They were suckered into leaving the bench in Game 4, and now, they get to show whether they can stand up to the bully without their big tough guy, Stoudemire. Now, they get a chance to hit back the only way that'll work: running.

The West is still the Spurs' street corner. Whatever damage they've done to their good names, they'll always take the fight to you.