SAN ANTONIO – Down by eight points entering the fourth quarter of Game 4 on Monday, the Phoenix Suns faced a defining moment in their season, if not their legacy. Would they be able to overcome their reputation as a shoot-first, defend-later, style-over-substance team? Or would they dig deep, make defensive stops, overcome a rowdy crowd and beat a San Antonio Spurs team that was controlling the action with its trademark dominating defense?
Phoenix answered the question by putting together a stirring comeback to win 104-98 and even the series at 2-2. The Suns did it with gritty defense, great rebounding and a late run fueled by Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. It was the type of game Phoenix hasn't been able to win in the past – particularly against the Spurs – and just may have been the breakthrough the team needed in its quest to win the franchise's first NBA title.
But – and it's a big but – Phoenix may be facing suspensions to both Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for Game 5 on Wednesday.
Both players left the bench late in the game following Robert Horry's flagrant foul of Steve Nash. Under the letter of the law, each player would be automatically suspended for Game 5. In fact, the precedent that has been set by the league is that there are no exceptions to the rule. Leave the bench area and you're automatically suspended. (See Patrick Ewing, Knicks vs. Heat, 1997.) Never mind that Horry instigated the events with a dirty, thuggish takedown of Nash. Rules are rules, according to the NBA.
However, if the league decides to suspend Diaw and Stoudemire, it may have to suspend Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen as well.
In a play that went entirely unnoticed until well after the game was over, both Duncan and Bowen actually left San Antonio's bench early in the second quarter after Francisco Elson and James Jones were entangled. Replays clearly show Duncan walking several steps onto the court as Elson and Jones appeared to be ready to get into it. Bowen then followed Duncan onto the floor, grabbed him and led him back to the bench. If the league does indeed follow the letter of the law, both Spurs players would also be suspended for Game 5.
Stu Jackson will have a busy Tuesday trying to sort everything out. The right thing to do would be to reprimand the players who left the bench area with a fine but not suspended them. The series should be decided by the teams and the players, not by an inflexible rule. The NBA needs to show some guts, announce that no suspensions will be made and have the Spurs and Suns continue what is turning into a fantastic series.
But I'm not sure if I see it happening.
In the past, Jackson and David Stern have held firm on the rule, punishing players for merely walking onto the floor a couple of steps away from the bench. There has been no flexibility. But would the league really feel like it was doing the right thing by suspending all of those players for basically doing nothing? I understand the reason for the rule – to avoid dangerous, bench-clearing brawls – but in both of the events in Game 4, no fights were involved. There were only altercations that never amounted to anything.
Jackson and Stern should take into account that not everything is black and white. They should be subjective in their ruling on this one, but again, they haven't been before.
The late-game scene took away from a fantastic Suns comeback. After playing Duncan straight up for most of the series, Phoenix threw several double teams at him that kept Duncan off balance. As a result, the Suns were able to make key stops down the stretch. At the other end, Nash overcame eight turnovers by making huge plays with the game on the line, continually finding Stoudemire in the lane for easy hoops.
Now the Suns head back to Phoenix with home-court advantage in hand, as they try to break through the mental barrier that exists for every team that has yet to win a title. To be a champion, you have to believe deep down that you're going to win, regardless of the situation. Monday's game took Phoenix one step closer to gaining that belief. But now the Suns – and the Spurs – will have to wait on the league's decisions regarding the possible suspensions.
The only player who deserves a suspension for Game 5 is Horry. As for Diaw, Stoudemire, Duncan and Bowen? We'll see.
Let's hope the league does the right thing and lets them all play. The basketball world deserves it.