Tuesday, May 8, 2007
Suns feeling heat, seeking answers, making changes
By Marc Stein ESPN.com
PHOENIX -- The next dunk thrown down by Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion or any other Sun you want to name will be the Suns' first dunk of the series.
Nash and the Suns had a sinking feeling after the Game 1 loss.
That's how deeply Phoenix has been suffocated by its desert drought against San Antonio.
The Suns have yet to win a single home playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs in the Steve Nash era, but they reached new depths Sunday. In the Game 1 loss that extended that dry spell to 0-4, Phoenix didn't manage a single slam, either.
Mark that down as yet another illustration of the Spurs' unrivaled ability to prevent the Suns from being who they are against everyone else.
The modern game's answer to Showtime, remember?
It's typically foolish to overreact to one game in the second round, but that's the thing. It's not just one game when you're talking Suns and Spurs. A pattern has been established over the last three years, which is why Game 1, for confidence reasons, was a virtual must-win for the Suns.
When it comes to Tuesday night's Game 2, go ahead and scratch virtual.
It's such a must from a Phoenix perspective -- and for the neutrals out there counting on this series to be as good as promised -- that even Tim Duncan couldn't stifle the urge to jab the Suns about the stakes.
"If we put these guys down 2-0, going back to our house, it puts some incredible pressure on them," Duncan says.
"I think there's some incredible pressure anyway with us up 1-0."
No matter how obvious such declarations seem, you never expect to hear Duncan pile on the hyperbole. But he's a rather giddy Timmy these days, breaking into a wider-than-usual grin when someone asked him to react to the Dallas Mavericks' first-round exit and sounding no less pleased that the Suns largely single-teamed him in the series opener.
The Suns are indeed planning to change their Duncan strategy somewhat by inserting Kurt Thomas into the starting lineup in place of James Jones, with Thomas expected to start on Duncan to spare Stoudemire from early foul trouble.
What Phoenix really needs, though, is better defense on the other Spurs if they're going to guard Duncan straight-up. TD is supposed to produce a 33-point, 16-rebound stat line when he's going one-on-one, no matter who's trying to defend him. The problem is Tony Parker adding 31 points to Duncan's total and Michael Finley tacking on 19.
"It's almost Kobe-ish," Suns swingman Raja Bell said.
TD did damage in the paint. TP lit it up from the perimeter.
You can get away with getting shredded by a Duncan or Kobe Bryant, Bell went on to explain, if you're "limiting other people's opportunities."
Another potential adjustment from Phoenix is giving Bell an opportunity or two to chase Parker around. Neither Marion's length nor Leandro Barbosa's speed bothered Parker in the opener and ditto for the Suns' willingness to give the Frenchman as many jumpers as he wanted. Of Parker's 14 field goals, only three were layups. Seven of his baskets were jumpers in the 20-foot range.
The Suns' frustrated leaders, mind you, are banking on an attitude adjustment more than anything. Back in 2005, when Joe Johnson couldn't play because of a broken face, Phoenix didn't have nearly as much firepower and could rationalize losing Games 1 and 2 at home despite taking leads into the fourth quarter both times. But now that they're 4-12 overall against the Spurs since Nash rejoined them for the 2004-05 season, having surrendered their home-court advantage so quickly again, Mike D'Antoni and Nash are openly voicing their frustrations.
Nash didn't back off Monday, publicly questioning the Suns' hunger/effort/fire for the second successive day, and D'Antoni has since echoed some of those concerns. Yet I can't help but wonder if the Suns are lacking in those categories because they're suffering most from self-belief issues.
From press row, it didn't look as though Stoudemire and Barbosa conspired to shoot a combined 2-for-13 in the fourth quarter of Game 1 because they didn't want it badly enough. The Suns, when San Antonio is on the other side, simply don't share D'Antoni and Nash's confidence that -- healthier than they've ever been in the Nash era apart from their QB's stitched-up nose -- they're finally ready to overcome their deficits in the size, chemistry and championship know-how departments to topple the Spurs.
"This is the toughest matchup for us," Nash says. "They've got more experience than us. They've got size [and] sort of a collective toughness you have to deal with."
Said D'Antoni: "I hate to say this, and I hope it [comes out] the right way. I think we have more talent than they do. I think that we're individually better."
"Collectively," D'Antoni continued, "they're better right now."
Can that change over the course of seven games? If Stoudemire can beat microfracture surgery in such a short span, maybe anything really is possible.
If the Suns can't get Game 2, it's probably not even a question worth asking.
D'Antoni's post-practice address to his team won't exactly hush the growing belief that the Nash-Stoudemire-Marion triumvirate will be dunked and dismantled if the Suns can't win this series.
Or at least make it a series.
Said D'Antoni: "I told them today, 'This could be your only chance in life to be a champion.'"
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.