PHOENIX – The San Antonio Spurs had been greeted with a surround sound of loathe, with "Dirty as Dirt" signs and "Stu Bleeps" T-shirts selling on the street corners. Sports talk radio sounded like a gathering of scorned school children, decrying the suspensions to Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw as the gravest of social injustices. One station was even reading the NBA's telephone number in New York over the air, as though they were going to harass David Stern instead of some poor switchboard operator.
There was the Spurs' Brent Barry standing stunned in warmups, watching an old lady flip him the middle finger and, later, an old man telling him that he had no class.
"But you don't even know me," Barry pleaded with him.
Oh, these Phoenix Suns fans think they know the Spurs too well, and no matter what they do, they still can't beat San Antonio when it matters most.
When this 88-85 loss in Game 5 was over, Raja Bell, the Suns' best defender, shrugged his shoulders and insisted that Phoenix would give Bruce Bowen that shot again with 36 seconds left, choose him over Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. As it turned out, Bowen's three-pointer with 36 seconds left was the dagger that pushed the Suns' season to the brink, down three games to two with Game 6 on Friday night in San Antonio.
Shawn Marion and Steve Nash would have chances in the final moments to tie the game again, but missed three-pointers resulted in lost opportunities to guarantee a Game 7 back at the US Airways Center on Sunday.
"We ran out of ideas," Nash said.
"I can't believe I'm saying this," coach Mike D'Antoni marveled, "but our offense just couldn't make enough shots."
When you play essentially six players, it happens. Eventually, the Spurs locked into the limited offensive sets Phoenix was left to run without Stoudemire on the floor, and they took away more and more. Nash, Marion and Bell all played at least 45 minutes each, and the three Suns were dragging in the final moments. Inevitably, the Spurs would make that late run to steal Game 5 and restore control of this series.
Nevertheless, whatever the Suns missed with Stoudemire, they had enough to win Game 5. They had every opportunity. Whatever they want to tell you, they have no excuses for the way they've gone down this season. Stoudemire is a magnificent talent, but Phoenix won 54 games without him a season ago.
The Suns could've won Wednesday. They had an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter, had Kurt Thomas doing what Duncan called an "excellent job" defending him, and still they let Game 5 slip away. Phoenix beat the Lakers in the playoffs and pushed the Mavericks to seven games in the conference semifinals last year. Right now, the Suns don't look like they'll get to a seventh game in this round again.
With the city still reeling over the suspensions of Stoudemire and Diaw for leaving the bench in Game 4 – and with Phoenix officials from Jerry Colangelo to Robert Sarver to Mike D'Antoni ripping the league's ruling on Tuesday – there was a riotous atmosphere in the arena. This is never the loudest gym in the league, but it made a bid Wednesday. The Suns inhaled it and were running fools to start the game, reaching a 16-point lead in the second quarter.
"It was maybe our worst half ever since I've been with San Antonio," Parker said.
Before the game, coach Gregg Popovich made a surprising confession that Game 5 felt "strange, not a normal Game 5." The suspensions took an edge, a sharpness, off the Spurs. When they knew that Phoenix was without two important players, they lost an edge. Almost, you sensed some guilt there, like San Antonio had been spotted some strokes.
"Nobody gave us a chance to win this game," the Suns' James Jones said later, and that had to play on the Spurs' minds as they scored 33 first-half points on 33-percent shooting.
San Antonio never stays down long, though, and it worked itself back into the game with Duncan (21 points and 12 rebounds) inside and Ginobili (26 points) out. The Spurs are constructed for comebacks, never rattled, never antsy. Whatever franchise image of clean, hard playing that's been shaken in this series, one thing hasn't: San Antonio is still the toughest out in basketball. The Spurs keep coming, the way no one else has over the past decade in the sport. They never beat themselves. They make you do it.
Now, that's on the Suns in Game 6. They talked about the empowerment of breaking through in Game 4 in San Antonio, about the belief it gives them, and well, what choice do they have now? Stoudemire will be back, and so will Diaw.
"We feel like we have a lot left," Nash said. "We have a lot of heart. I think this thing is just heating up."