Nash, Amar'e see playoff success eye to eye

SAN ANTONIO – The Phoenix Suns had wrapped up the final practice in preparation for their series against the San Antonio Spurs, and Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) announced he wanted to address the team. Stoudemire talked about the Suns' past struggles against the Spurs. He implored his teammates to play hard, to never let up. He said they needed to stay sharp, and then, for emphasis, Stoudemire prattled off a list of mistakes his teammates had made in past games, including a blown dunk by Jason Richardson(notes) from the Suns' only loss to the Spurs this season.

Stoudemire never singled himself out for blame, and by the end of his impassioned speech many of the Suns were rolling their eyes. Nearly all of them were thinking the same thing: What was that?

The Suns' coaches could only shrug. In his own confused way, Stoudemire was trying to lead. His intent was noble, even as his execution was flawed. Steve Nash(notes) also likely shook his head, but he understood the reality: Stoudemire could issue his goofy battle cry, and, somehow, together, the two of them would have to find a way to make it work.

One week later, there they were, less than an hour removed from an improbable sweep of the Spurs, headed to the Western Conference finals, Stoudemire stepping off the podium, Nash stepping up, the two of them sharing a laugh. Nash's right eye had purpled and swollen shut courtesy of an elbow from Tim Duncan(notes), the latest battle scar from his blood war with the Spurs, and Stoudemire couldn't resist.

"Stoudemire vision," he barked at his point guard.

More than anything, this was a victory in perseverance for Stoudemire and Nash. They'd cracked their skulls so many times against these Spurs, Stoudemire losing four playoff series to them as the longest-tenured member of the Suns, Nash dropping six, spread between his days in Phoenix and Dallas. No one thought they'd even get another chance.

The Suns had spent the past six seasons juggling coaches, general managers and lineups, always searching for some combination to push them past San Antonio. They weathered Shawn Marion's(notes) moodiness. They traded for Shaq and tried to play big. They let Mike D'Antoni walk, replaced him with Terry Porter then replaced Porter with Alvin Gentry.

Nash and Stoudemire were the lone constants, forever the odd couple, and even they seemed destined to be split apart. Nash was too old, Stoudemire too flawed. Their partnership had run its course. The Suns fielded trade offers for Stoudemire a year ago and did the same this season. Wounded by the constant speculation, Stoudemire sounded more and more determined to leave as a free agent.

Somehow, Stoudemire and Nash survived, and then came Sunday. The Suns' role players had starred for much of the series, pushing the Spurs to the brink of elimination, and now Phoenix leaned on its two anchors to finish the job. Unable to see with his right eye, Nash pulled up in transition and threw in a 3-pointer. Stoudemire rose over Duncan for a dunk. Twenty-two of the Suns' 35 points in the final quarter came from Stoudemire and Nash. At long last, they'd exorcised their demons.

"Ever since my rookie season, I've been leaving this building with a bitter taste in my mouth," Stoudemire said. "Every time I left, I'd always say, 'I'll get them back. I got to get them back. One day I'll get them back.' A few times I almost had tears in my eyes leaving this arena."

Nash left with six stitches above his eye, and that's been a common theme for him in this rivalry. He has taken a hip check from Robert Horry(notes), a knee to the groin from Bruce Bowen(notes). In the opening game of the teams' 2007 second-round series, Nash split open his nose in a collision with Tony Parker(notes). Unable to stop the bleeding, Nash couldn't stay on the court long enough to keep the Spurs from surging to a victory that gave them control of the series.

So when Duncan's elbow caught Nash flush in the eye in the third quarter, again forcing him to the locker room? He had one thought: Of course.

"We'd gone 3½ games with clear sailing," he said.

This, in Nash's words, was the Suns' "self-fulfilling prophecy." Somehow, someway, something bad always happens just when they start to think they're clear of the Spurs. Nash had set the tone for the series in the opening game by attacking, and now he needed to finish San Antonio off but couldn't see straight.

"I don't know how it didn't keep me on the sideline," he said.

The 3-pointer helped quell Nash's concerns. He tossed in another shot and continued to drive into the lane. With the Spurs making one final, desperate push, Nash split a pair of defenders and lofted one more shot that settled into the basket.

"I don't want to glorify it and make it into fairy tales, but it's been a long time that I haven't been able to beat this team, and I had a great shot at it," he said. "I was just trying to close it out and do everything I could."

Stoudemire carried the same determination. A year ago, he injured his own right eye, costing him the final two months of the season and robbing the Suns of any chance they had to make the playoffs. He underwent surgery to repair his detached retina, and for the next week and a half he spent 22 hours a day lying on his chest – staring at the floor, reading a book, sleeping – as his eye healed.

Once the season started, Stoudemire was still trying to find his rhythm and timing. The Suns couldn't be sure what they'd get from him or how long he'd stay healthy. He began to play well enough for Phoenix officials to engage him in contract extension talks, but given his history of injuries and the team's recent playoff struggles, the offer was lacking. As the trade deadline approached, the Suns weighed potential deals for their All-Star forward. The Spurs were among those who called, but talks between the two teams never escalated. In the end, Phoenix decided no deal was the best deal.

"I think, collectively, everybody felt, let's see what we can do," Grant Hill(notes) said.

Still, Stoudemire was stung from the speculation. He'd seen Nash and Hill both get extensions over the summer and had grown frustrated that the Suns had yet to grant him a new contract that met his value. Gentry and his staff delivered a sharp message to Stoudemire: Make them pay you. Stoudemire wasn't the first person to feel the pinch of Robert Sarver's shrinking wallet. His best response would be to play well enough so the Suns owner would have to increase his offer. At worst, Stoudemire would enhance his value among other suitors.

Make no mistake, Stoudemire's flightiness can still frustrate his coaches and teammates: He picked up an unnecessary technical in the third quarter, then fouled George Hill(notes) as he made a 3-pointer with less than 30 seconds remaining. But Gentry has also pulled the best from Stoudemire, holding him accountable, molding him into a more dedicated defender. Since the All-Star break, no team has played better than the Suns. Stoudemire's consistency is the biggest reason why. He led the Suns' closeout victory with 29 points.

"I feel great," he said, "about not leaving."

There would be no tears on this night. Stoudemire stepped down from the podium and laughed with Nash. The Suns' bus was idling in the loading dock, waiting to take them to the conference finals. They'd finally beaten the Spurs, vanquished all those bad memories, and no one expected them to be here. Always the odd couple, they'd stayed together long enough to see their dream through.

One week, four games, six more stitches. Somehow, someway, they'd made this crazy partnership work.

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