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Saturday, April 19, 2008
Spurs' heavyweight blows might leave a mark on Suns

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan stands at the edge of the 3-point line, waiting to make his first 3-pointer of the season.

SAN ANTONIO -- No bloody nose in this Game 1 for Steve Nash. The wound from this one isn't as blatantly messy.

Yet you were instantly moved to wonder, when you finally got up off the floor, whether Saturday's scar from the latest Instant Classic staged by these two titans will be another deep and decisive one for the Suns.

Deeper than the Nash Gash of 2007? Painful enough to dent the Suns' newfound belief that this is finally their time to take down Team Duncan? We'll soon see.

It's certainly feasible that Phoenix could rebound with an absolute fury in Game 2 after the gut-wrenching sight of Tim Duncan throwing in the clutchest of 3-pointers, rumbling for 40 points overall and combining with a game-clinching Manu Ginobili layup to inflict an indescribably bitter 117-115 defeat.

Or maybe it's best to concede that predictions are probably futile at this point. Good luck trying to forecast what happens next after Phoenix and San Antonio somehow managed to exceed our ridiculously high expectations and take us all on a double-overtime ride in the first act of what is already being touted as the Greatest First Round Matchup Ever.

"It wouldn't have been a Suns-Spurs series," Phoenix's Raja Bell said in the visitors quiet losing locker room, "if something funky didn't happen."

We sure didn't have to wait long for the funk this time, assuming that Bell's description is sufficiently out there to sum up this roller-coaster afternoon.

Let's see …

Shaquille O'Neal played only four minutes and 11 seconds in the first half of his big showdown with Duncan because of foul trouble. In the second quarter, O'Neal lasted exactly 24 seconds before collecting his third foul.

• Phoenix countered the exact scenario it was dreading most by rolling up a 16-point lead in the first half anyway.

• San Antonio sliced that deficit to eight points by halftime at least in part because Spurs coach Gregg Popovich fouled up Phoenix's flow by going to a tactic he almost never uses and intentionally fouling Brian Skinner, who was on the floor only because O'Neal, Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were all in foul trouble for Phoenix.

• Popovich then triggered a game-saving rally in the fourth quarter by going from what Suns counterpart Mike D'Antoni called "Hack-A-Skinny" to the more conventional Hack-A-Shaq. O'Neal was intentionally grabbed by Fabricio Oberto with the Suns up 82-77, missed both free throws and was summoned to the bench for nearly four minutes. Such intentional fouling, remember, is outlawed in the final two minutes of the period, but the Suns were down one by the time Shaq returned … which happened to be the first Phoenix deficit of the game after nearly 46 minutes of control.

"Who knows?" Popovich said. "That is just a roll-the-bones type of deal. Sometimes Shaq misses his free throws and sometimes he makes five in a row. … We don't do it often, if ever, but for whatever reason I felt like doing it at the time."

Like most developments at the most crucial Game 1 junctures, Pop's call worked for the defending champs. The Suns did manage to wrest the lead back, but couldn't restore more than three points of separation, setting them up to be dragged to overtime when they botched a switch on Michael Finley's game-tying triple.

Combine Finley's dagger to force the first OT with the Phoenix shot-clock violation that preceded it and Leandro Barbosa's hurried jumper at the regulation buzzer and you can understand why D'Antoni insisted afterward that Finley's 3 "hurt more" than what Duncan did.

Reason being: Phoenix couldn't regret too much about its defense for Duncan's big moment, essentially forcing San Antonio to take the worst shot it could get at 104-101 down, only for Duncan to drain his first 3 of the season and then celebrate just the fourth 3-pointer in 10 trips to the postseason with the fist-pump of his life.

"I guess they're not going to go easy," D'Antoni said, trying to react with a light touch to the latest of countless disappointments against the Spurs since Nash returned to the desert for the 2004-05 season.

"I guess [Duncan] was due," D'Antoni continued.

Added Stoudemire: "Happy birthday to him."

Duncan's 32th birthday isn't actually until Friday, but the Suns have to be gravely concerned that San Antonio's cornerstone is primed to be a rock again after his 15-for-40 struggles from the field against Phoenix in the two most recent encounters with O'Neal. It might not even matter that none of Duncan's 20 first-half points came with Shaq on the floor … or that Shaq eventually did swat two of Duncan's shots and harass him reasonably when he was on the court. Duncan's 40 points, 15 boards and three blocks in 50 minutes would suggest that Playoff Timmy has arrived.

It's no less a concern for the Suns that Ginobili looked unguardable at times, especially in the second overtime when he kept taking advantage of the Suns' foul-laden bigs to score repeatedly (eight of his 26 points) with the same swooping lefty drive.

Popovich had one more surprise stored up in his media address, claiming that those two regular-season defeats to Phoenix after Shaq's arrival. "It really bothered us mentally," Pop said. "And we apparently lost a little bit of heart, which our team rarely, if ever, does."

The implication, then, is that this comeback restored a good bit of heart for the hosts. Which naturally leads you to check on the Suns' pulse, starting with Nash.

He didn't say a word about it postgame, but a club insider divulged that Nash was essentially bed-ridden by the flu Friday, explaining why Nash seemed to lack his usual zip and animation even as he racked up a handsome 25 points and 13 assists. Nash scored 14 of those points in the two OTs, rallying from a rare miss at the line to drop a fallaway 3 of his own with 15.7 seconds to go in the second extra period. But Ginobili, without the benefit of a timeout to set up, answered by driving in for the deciding bucket.

Given the foul trouble and Nash's low tank and the many opportunities they squandered, perhaps the Suns needn't despair.

We'll soon see.

"We had the game won a few times and just weren't tough enough or disciplined enough to make every single play," Nash said. "[But] we feel pretty good about ourselves. We feel like we're going to be really difficult to beat."

When he wasn't railing about how "the floppers prevailed today," Shaq added: "They know we let them have one."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.