By John Hollinger
PHOENIX – Here's a trend from Game 1 you can bank on for the rest of the Western conference semifinal series between Phoenix and San Antonio: starters Antonio McDyess and Jarron Collins will be nowhere to be found by crunch time. The starting centers for the Spurs and Suns, respectively, are likely to be on the sidelines while match-ups dictate each side plays small in crunch time.
San Antonio had five players play 33 or more minutes in Game 1, and four of them were perimeter players. Tim Duncan (37) was the only big man who played more than 20 minutes; McDyess played 19 and Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair combined for 24. Do the math and that leaves 16 minutes of smallball, most of which happened in the fourth quarters.
Similarly, Phoenix used small lineups with Jared Dudley or Grant Hill at power forward for 14 minutes; starter Collins played only nine minutes and the other primary frontcourt player, Channing Frye, saw 29.
In light of what happened last night, perhaps our debate over whether the Spurs will start Tony Parker or George Hill at point guard is overdone. The real issue is that Parker, George Hill, Manu Ginobili and Richard Jefferson are all likely to play extended minutes.
“I don’t think it matters,” said Suns coach Alvin Gentry. “Even if he doesn’t start he’s going to play mid-30s [minutes].”
San Antonio has an important tactical reason to play such lineups, because if can force the Suns to double-team Tim Duncan – especially if Amare Stoudemire gets fouls on him.
“What they’re trying to do,” said Gentry, “is find situations where [Duncan] can be freed up and we’ll have to double team him, and then they’ve got some shooters out of on the floor where they’ve got the floor spaced.”
“A few years ago they did that against us and it was very successful, spacing the floor and playing with smalls. We’ve got smalls that we can play with, we’ve played that way a lot where we’ve played with Jared [Dudley] or Grant [Hill] as the 4 man, so it’s not anything new to us. It’s not like we’re adjusting to how they play, it also affords us an opportunity to play a team that we like to have on the floor.”
As for whether we’ll see smallball rule every fourth quarter in this series, Gentry said “I wouldn’t say that’s a definite, [but] it’s definitely a possibility.”
One other reason we might see smallball is that Phoenix center Robin Lopez was “just OK” in today’s practice, according to Gentry. He won’t play in Game 2, and the Suns will evaluate him again before heading to San Antonio.
If so, it puts pressure on Dudley in particular, Phoenix’s jack-of-all-trades defended point guard Andre Miller in the last series and now will find himself matched up as a small-ball power forward against Jefferson for long stretches in this one… and guarding Parker or Hill at others.
“That’s my role,” said Dudley. I’ve guarded Dirk this year, LeBron, Wade. I try to guard the best offensive player and give somebody like Jason [Richardson] the freedom to wear down Ginobili.”