SAN ANTONIO – The season hadn't been over an hour, and Steve Nash had turned the Game 6 eulogy into one more alibi on accountability. As it looks, this promises to be the sad song of the Phoenix Suns' summer, an insistence that something in this San Antonio Spurs series, this season, was left unanswered, that maybe the Suns are allowed to believe that the best team goes home now.
"We'll never know," Nash said late Friday night. He had been asked if he leaves these Western Conference semifinals believing there was nothing to do to close the gap on San Antonio, because it had been done despite losing in six games, despite the truth-telling of the scoreboard.
"Part of me as a sportsman wants to give them credit but I don't know what the outcome could have been if we went home tied with a full team. … If we had our guys."
Finally, Nash said, "This will forever haunt us."
This will forever haunt the Suns until they lose to the Spurs again next year. Because if they go into the offseason thinking this way, concluding that they still don't have work to do to close the gap on San Antonio's dynasty, they're doomed to never beat the Spurs.
Between now and then, Phoenix needs to come to grips with the truth of the matter: The San Antonio Spurs are still superior.
They are older, tougher and ultimately understanding of what it takes to be a champion. In ways big and small, it shows itself over and over. When this 114-106 victory was done Friday night, Nash, always hard on himself and his teammates, refused to make the obligatory concession speech to the Spurs.
Sorry, but there is no asterisk on this series for the Spurs. There was just Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker playing genius basketball in Game 6, closing out a series for the eighth straight time when San Antonio was leading with three victories.
For his part, Duncan has restored his standing as the sport's most devastating all-around player, registering 24 points, 13 rebounds and nine blocks Friday. Ginobili advanced his legend as a big-game player with 33 points, including a third-period takeover that turned this game, this series, to the Spurs. Bruce Bowen controlled Nash until San Antonio had a 20-point lead in the final quarter, Tony Parker had 30 points and on and on. Now, the Spurs round third and head for home on a fourth championship in the past decade.
Make no mistake: Here were the two best teams in basketball, and everything that comes next promises to be anti-climactic. Of the Spurs-Jazz Western Conference final, even Brent Barry said, "It's not going to be the most exciting basketball."
These Suns had chances, good chances to beat San Antonio, but the heart and soul, Nash, determined to live back in the what if's of Game 5, back where most of the public will gladly enable Phoenix with the belief that somehow a great injustice had been done the team. Perhaps part of that is Nash's advancing age, 33 years old now, and the tick-tick-tick that goes with a Hall of Fame career that still hasn't seen the NBA finals – never mind a title.
"I can sit up here and complain after the fact and cry about it, but it's tough not to think forever what might have happened if this stupid rule hadn't gotten in the way," Nash said. "It's hard to come this far and put this much into a season and be without two players in Game 5 for nothing."
Whatever the Suns want to believe about it being nothing, they should understand that it was something.
Here's how Phoenix ought to remember the opportunity lost: Stoudemire and Diaw didn't have the maturity, the poise, to control themselves in a telltale moment of these playoffs. That's part of the process of winning a championship.
Was it momentary transgression to leave the bench when Robert Horry popped Nash at the end of Game 4?
As it turns out, it was probably this, too: The difference between winning and losing, between San Antonio and Phoenix.
"We never got a full swing in," Nash countered.
Only the Suns did.
Maybe nobody likes the rule. Maybe they'll alter the rule this summer.
Yet it was there, it was violated and the Suns can't go on insisting that somehow they should've been granted a mulligan on it. Yet every player in the league understands there's no leaving the bench in a scrum, and there's a reason the ex-dean of discipline, Rod Thorn, called what happened with Stoudemire and Diaw "an aberration" these days because it never happens anymore. Why, because players never square off on the floor? No, because players know the rule, and they almost always abide by it.
When the game was over Friday, Stoudemire wasn't going down that slippery slope with Nash. He talked about the young Suns needing to learn how to think the game, study it and understand all the nuances in these kinds of pressure series that separate the Spurs and them.
"We had a chance to win," said Stoudemire, who did his part with a dizzying 38 points and 12 rebounds.
There it was, in Game 6, an opportunity to get back to Phoenix for Game 7, to take the Spurs the distance.
"We'll never know," Nash said, and the two-time MVP, one of the greats ever, was wrong on this one.
We'll never know?
We already do.