PHOENIX – Tony Parker took the ball, darted between a pair of Phoenix Suns and sped toward the basket with Grant Hill on his hip. He had less than four seconds to cover 60 feet, and that's all he needed. As soon as Parker reached the lane, he braked and released a pillow-soft teardrop of a shot. Amare Stoudemire glanced up in time to see the ball float over his head and slide through the net as the buzzer sounded.
Heads bowed, shoulders slumped, the Suns began their long trudge to the locker room for halftime. Stoudemire, however, stayed back, staring upward through the basket and beyond, wondering perhaps why the basketball gods had sentenced him to yet another evening of misery.
Nearly all of Stoudemire's teammates had left the court, and still he continued to stare. The moment seemed to sum up these four years of frustration for Phoenix and its talented young forward.
After all, aren't these Suns always looking up at the Spurs?
That doesn't figure to change in the coming days unless the Suns can become the first team in NBA history to rally from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. The thorough 115-99 beating the Spurs applied Friday night seemed to drain Phoenix and its fans of their remaining spirit, except, of course, for the locals who still had enough energy left to boo the home team.
The Spurs led from opening tip to final buzzer, playing what Manu Ginobili later called "almost a perfect game." Parker never has been better, scoring a career-best 41 points, distributing 12 assists and peppering the Suns with jump shot after jump shot for the 40 minutes he spent on the floor.
"Le Magnifique," Brent Barry said of the Spurs' French point guard.
Said Parker: "We learn from our past mistakes."
The Suns can't seem to do the same. After losing the series' first two games in San Antonio, after Parker and Ginobili had sliced up the Suns by repeatedly barreling to the rim, Mike D'Antoni and Steve Nash said they merely needed to improve their offense to get back in the series. The Suns' defense, D'Antoni said, was not the problem.
D'Antoni rarely views defense as the problem, which is why the Suns don't play much of it. On Friday, they ducked under the Spurs' screens and sagged off Parker, daring him to shoot over them. So he did. Five of the first six shots he made were from at least 16 feet.
D'Antoni briefly employed a zone defense. He tried his ailing forward, Hill, on Parker. He even threw Parker's 6-foot-8 French buddy, Boris Diaw, on him. The Suns tried a few different schemes but played them all poorly. Never did they aggressively try to take the ball out of Parker's hands.
"They really didn't change all that much," said one Spur. "It was pretty strange. Look at Tony's shots. Didn't he make every one on the left side? That says something."
It says that the Suns let Parker get comfortable, which is nothing new. Parker and Ginobili almost always get comfortable against the Suns.
"That's the best I've seen someone play," D'Antoni said of the Spurs. "… We didn't have answers for them, obviously."
Do they ever? The Suns traded for Shaquille O'Neal hoping he would improve their rebounding and interior defense, and he helped beat the Spurs in the teams' final two regular-season meetings. What went overlooked was that O'Neal, like Nash, is one of the worst pick-and-roll defenders at his position. The Spurs, on occasion, have been known to run a few pick-and-rolls.
The Suns also made the trade believing that Hill was versatile enough to help assume some of the defensive assignments Shawn Marion used to take. Hill proved as much when he helped shadow Parker in those two regular-season games. The problem: The Suns were gambling on Hill's health, always a high-risk proposition.
All series Hill has been slowed by an abdominal injury that he has feared actually is a sports hernia. He previously had surgery to repair a sports hernia at the start of the 2005-06 season, and the doctor who performed that operation allayed some of Hill's concerns in a conversation on Thursday. Hill also underwent an MRI on Thursday that came back negative. He felt good enough Friday morning to play, and D'Antoni opted to bring him off the bench and start Leandro Barbosa. Still, it was evident quickly, particularly after Hill started the second half, that he lacked his usual bounce.
"He just doesn't look right," Robert Horry said.
Parker, meanwhile, looked even better than he did last season when he shredded the Cleveland Cavaliers on his way to becoming MVP of the NBA Finals. The Suns seemed surprised. Said O'Neal: "He's not really known for his jump shot."
O'Neal apparently remembers the Parker he used to run into during his days with the Los Angeles Lakers. In the 2004 playoffs, Parker opened with two strong games against the Lakers. Once the series moved to Los Angeles, Phil Jackson packed his defense into the lane and kept Parker from the rim. Lacking a consistent jump shot, Parker never had a weapon to counter. The Lakers rallied to win the series.
The same thing happened to Parker in 2002, 2003 and nearly happened again in 2005 against the Detroit Pistons in the Finals. Finally, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had seen enough. Never a believer in shooting coaches, he hired one of the best at the recommendation of Danny Ferry. Chip Engelland, who once worked with Hill, remade Parker's shot. The results were on display Friday. With Bruce Bowen hounding Nash into another substandard performance, Parker has been the series' best point guard.
Popovich also never believed in Hack-A-Shaq, but he let his assistants talk him into using it against the Suns. The Spurs again turned to the strategy in Friday's first half. Three times, O'Neal committed a lane violation while shooting free throws.
Good coaches adjust. So do good franchises. It says something that while Nash and D'Antoni were lamenting the team's offensive struggles after Game 2, Suns GM Steve Kerr had a different opinion. "It's just defense," Kerr said.
Kerr has clung to that belief all season, and that speaks to some level of disconnect, minor or not, between the front office and sideline. A guess: If the Suns go on to lose this series and D'Antoni is allowed to remain coach, there will be changes or additions to his staff. Kevin Garnett has made the Boston Celtics' defense the league's best, but it's the scheme designed by a new assistant, Tom Thibodeau, that has allowed him to do it.
D'Antoni certainly doesn't deserve all the blame for Phoenix's troubles. The point guard who now helps lead Boston's top-ranked defense? Rajon Rondo. The same Rajon Rondo the Suns drafted for Boston because owner Robert Sarver wanted to sell his draft picks. After losing to the Spurs last season in the teams' most tightly contested series yet, Sarver had Kerr ship his best low-post defender, Kurt Thomas, and two first-round picks to Seattle just for the right to get Thomas' $8 million salary off his books.
On Friday, Thomas started for the Spurs. O'Neal? Late in the fourth quarter, he got switched onto Parker. Parker took a couple of dribbles backward. When O'Neal didn't follow, Parker set his feet and launched one last three-point dagger.
All O'Neal could do was look up. For these Suns, the position was all too familiar.