PHOENIX – Finally, it happened in a heartbeat, Amare Stoudemire catching his point guard's pass on the pick and roll, rising and rising, thundering down on a dunk. Sixty-five minutes had passed in this series, and the San Antonio Spurs hadn't surrendered a slam to the Phoenix Suns until Steve Nash started to make space on the floor Tuesday night and dropped the ball to Stoudemire – and slowly, surely, they started to resemble themselves again.
So started this sweet freedom, the Spurs' resistance futile to the desperation of these Suns who had come to understand that a season's failure hung over Game 2. It wasn't so much the flash of Phoenix that ultimately beat down San Antonio 101-81 at the U.S. Airways Center, but the substance of these Suns.
It had been a night when letting the Western Conference semifinal slip away could've cost these go-go Suns future championship chases as currently constituted. San Antonio isn't just an opponent, but a threshold for Phoenix. Perhaps, this was the best these Suns have ever played against the Spurs.
"This team has a psychological hold on us," said Nash, confessing to something with which the Suns had always bristled. "Even if we don't feel it, [the Spurs] must feel it in their locker room."
Deep down, the Spurs do. They don't fear Phoenix, don't believe that finesse and flair will ever be the elixir to San Antonio's tough, tested championship pedigree.
The Suns hadn't beaten the Spurs in a playoff game in the desert since Jake Voskuhl, of all people, heaved a hook over Tim Duncan in 2003, a year before Nash made his return to the Suns. All around the two-time defending MVP on Tuesday, Suns fans were wearing band-aids across the bridges of their noses as part of a radio station promotion to salute the residue of his Game 1 gash. Nash was his genius self with 20 points and 16 assists, but he was most relieved to see that his call to arms – as unpopular as it was with his coach and teammates – had been heeded.
He never named names with his insistence after Game 1 that there were teammates dogging it ("If we're honest with ourselves, we didn't play as hard as we could," he said again Tuesday), but there was strong suspicion that he had targeted Shawn Marion. After all, Tony Parker had gone wild on the Matrix, destroying him for 32 points in Game 1, and now his coach had an unmistakable mandate for him: Forget everything else in Game 2 – just guard Parker, just stop him.
He did, holding Parker to 13 points, and it went a long way toward saving the Suns' season. Marion sacrificed his own offense – shooting just four times – to devote body and mind to chasing the smaller, faster Parker to the ends of the floor. Marion fought through screens and used those long arms to stay tight enough to contest Parker's shots, yet loose enough to protect himself on those blurry drives to the basket.
Marion sighed when the game was over, insisting simply that, "I just did what I was told to do: Don't think of nothing else but trying to stop Tony."
Marion is sometimes the forgotten star in Phoenix, lost in the wonder of the back-to-back MVP Nash and the powerful phenom Stoudemire, who had 27 points. Marion always feels under-appreciated, under-valued, but make no mistake: As much as anyone, he's the reason the Suns go to San Antonio for Game 3 on Saturday with a basketball season.
They could live with Tim Duncan getting his 29 points, especially when Kurt Thomas would hold him to two points in the fourth quarter. Thomas moved into the starting lineup to guard Duncan, and ultimately, his nastiness, his edge and his strength to defend Duncan in the playoffs was the reason he was brought here. The Suns didn't come with the double teams on Duncan, just spared Stoudemire the responsibility, freeing him to roam a little on defense, and left Thomas to defend Duncan alone. "Tim is so well-respected, it keeps me out of foul trouble," Stoudemire said.
Everything coach Mike D'Antoni tried for Game 2 ended up working out.
"I thought we were supposed to be the defensive team coming into the playoffs here against Phoenix, but they made us look like novices," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
No one should think for a moment that there's a sudden reversal of roles in this series. Win or lose on Tuesday, the Spurs had control of the series. With the way they've dominated the Nash-era Suns, you still have to think they'll come out of the next two games in San Antonio with a 3-1 series lead. Phoenix's season was on the line in Game 2, and the Suns played with desperation everywhere on the court. Truth be told, these were Phoenix's survivalist instincts rising in the desert.
On the way to Games 3 and 4 now, on the way to the Alamo, D'Antoni understood this gap between the Suns and Spurs, between champions and wannabes: "You have to play every possession like it is Game 7. … [The Spurs] will do that, and hopefully we are learning to do that," D'Antoni said.
The bleeding stopped at the U.S. Airways Center, and Steve Nash had a confession to make on behalf of the Phoenix Suns. San Antonio had something over them – "a psychological hold," he called it – and once they started to get loose, started to defend, and run, and finally dunk on these Spurs, that felt like maybe, just maybe, the Suns were beginning to free themselves.