1. Nash, Suns Finally Get Past Their Rivals
SAN ANTONIO -- It didn't matter that the guy they call Two-Time, because of those matching MVP trophies back home, was down to one functioning eye.
Didn't matter that the Phoenix Suns' double-digit lead vanished almost as soon as Steve Nash left the floor to get six emergency stitches to close a deep, deep cut.
Didn't matter that Nash spent much of crunch time trying (and failing) to keep that right eye open by arching his eyebrows during stoppages in play. Or that the San Antonio Spurs would also hit the Suns with George Hill's four-point play in the final minute, which only added to the here-we-go-again dread that even Nash couldn't keep from running through his woozy head.
Nash and the Suns survived it all on this bloody Sunday night. They weathered Tim Duncan's inadvertent elbow to Nash's face on a drive and every last remaining ounce of San Antonio's psychological hold on this franchise, pulling out a 107-101 victory to complete a soul-cleansing sweep in a Game 4 that somehow generated the tension of a Game 7.
When Nash finally made it to the postgame podium, with his eye swollen completely shut and his eyelid unmistakably (and fittingly) purple once you got up close to him, he cracked: "Do we need to even say anything?"
The implication was clear. Nash couldn't see his audience too well, but he figured everyone in the room had a fair idea of what it meant for the Suns to complete this 4-0 brooming of their longtime playoff tormentors, after San Antonio KO'd Phoenix from the postseason four times in a six-season span from 2003-08.
You've also surely heard that six of Nash's previous 13 seasons ended with a loss to the hosts. That should help explain why Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, Duncan and finally Spurs legend David Robinson, spilling onto the floor from his courtside seat, looked legitimately excited for Nash during the postgame exchange of hugs.
"I couldn't be happier for a class, class, class guy," Popovich said. "I hate him, but he's classy."
Said Nash: "Fortunately someone was smiling on us tonight."
That's true to some degree. Unlike the unforgettably bloody nose he suffered in crunch time of Game 1 of the teams' 2007 epic series, Nash had the good sense to get nailed in the third quarter this time, giving the Suns' medical staff sufficient time to sew up this gash and set him up to return for the whole fourth quarter.
In this series, though, these Suns consistently earned a good slice of their fortune, repeatedly proving -- despite the absence of injured center Robin Lopez -- that they're tougher, deeper and more legit defensively than any of the teams San Antonio tortured throughout the previous decade. Phoenix failed to score 20 points in the first quarter in both games in San Antonio and still managed to creep past 100 in both cases, which doomed the offensively challenged Spurs after they had seemingly just returned to title contention by dumping No. 2-seeded Dallas in Round 1.
Even better: Phoenix was powered to its clinching, cathartic victory by a vintage display of two-man dominance from its longest sufferers. Nash (10 points, five assists) and Stoudemire (12 points) combined for 22 of the Suns' 35 points in the final period, despite vintage San Antonio pressure on the ball in the backcourt and the rather limited peripheral vision that admittedly had Nash "pretty worried" when he first went back in. It was the famously steady Duncan, meanwhile, who committed a bad fifth foul out of frustration with nearly six minutes to play in regulation and finished a fatal 16-for-34 from the free throw line for the series.
Stoudemire wound up with 29 points, Nash totaled 20 points and nine assists and Jared Dudley emerged as the latest difference-maker off the Phoenix bench, contributing 16 points on near-perfect shooting plus six boards.
"As you can see," Dudley said, "it's a different [Suns] team and a different year."
Nash believes it, too, but admits that his confidence was briefly shaken after taking the hit from Duncan with 5:52 to go in the third and the Suns up 64-57. Without Nash, Phoenix quickly surrendered the rest of its seemingly comfortable lead, which had swelled to 11 points on a Channing Frye 3-pointer.
"We'd gone 3½ games with clear sailing," Nash said, explaining why he initially assumed the worst while being worked on in the Suns' locker room.
Then Nash caught himself, realizing he was falling prey to something always happens against San Antonio thinking that could easily spread to less-experienced teammates.
Here-we-go-again pity, Nash concluded, is "just a self-fulfilling prophecy."
So he came back and flourished despite his limitations, offering up a decent facsimile of the 36-year-old who shredded the Spurs for 33 points and 10 assists in a tone-setting Game 1. The Spurs responded with plenty of their own trademark toughness -- Tony Parker, for example, had to get a pregame painkiller shot in his posterior to deal with his sore shoulder and back after multiple falls in Game 3 -- but couldn't prevent their whopping 15th successive loss in the playoffs when surrendering 100 points.
"It's just hard to guard those guys -- for us to guard them -- for 48 minutes," Popovich said. "You have to be pretty perfect. We have to be pretty perfect."
It proved to be too much to ask. The Spurs quietly managed to hold Jason Richardson under 20 points for the third successive game even with Richardson sinking a crucial late 3-pointer -- well aware that Phoenix is 30-4 this season when Richardson gets to 20 -- and still couldn't avoid the sweep. And what that meant to the Suns' co-captains especially was evident in the interview room, where Nash finally revealed his determination to close the Spurs out at the first attempt because of all his past heartbreaks.
No matter what.
"I don't want to glorify it and make it into fairy tales," Nash said, "but it's been a long time that I haven't been able to beat this team."
Stoudemire, meanwhile, happily marched off the podium just as Nash was arriving with a jab about his own eye issues last season.
"Two-Time with the Stoudemire vision," Amare joked.
For once they're leaving this town with a laugh ... along with an endorsement from Duncan about their chances of surprising the mighty Lakers next.
None of this was expected back in October when the Suns convened for training camp, or even as recently as February when Stoudemire was nearly dealt before the trading deadline. Now?
The Suns are on a 36-9 roll since Jan. 26. And it certainly can't hurt Nash, Lopez or Grant Hill -- reincarnated at 37 as a defensive stopper -- that the Suns' trip to the conference finals probably won't start for another week.
"The way they're playing," Duncan said, "they have a chance against anyone."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
2. What's Next For The Spurs?
By Marc Stein
SAN ANTONIO -- Bidding to become the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series, Team Duncan didn't even make it to a Game 5.
Sunday night's Game 4 defeat instead saddles the Spurs with just the second sweep in Tim Duncan's 13 seasons, along with a 4-0 brooming inflicted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2001 Western Conference finals.
Yet when it was over, Duncan and Steve Nash both brought up something that was rarely discussed during a series that -- short as it was -- oozed with storylines.
For all of the Suns' improvement in the areas of defense and toughness under Alvin Gentry in Gentry's first full season as coach, as well as Gentry's undeniably positive influence on Amare Stoudemire, this sweep might not have been possible if the Spurs hadn't slipped another notch this season from their title-winning best. San Antonio is clearly more vulnerable on D and can't deny that Duncan -- on top of injuries that had Manu Ginobili (nose) and Tony Parker (back and shoulder) covered in bandages in the season finale -- has been scuffling with his game ever since he turned 34 in the Dallas series.
"We're both different teams," Duncan said of this matchup compared to Spurs-Suns encounters of recent vintage.
Said Nash: "It feels great [to finally beat San Antonio], but, like I said, the past is the past. It definitely is rewarding to win a series against the Spurs, but it is two different teams. [The teams have] similar cores, but so many players are different. You can't act like this is a continuation in many ways."
It's nonetheless tempting to wonder what might have happened in Game 5 in Phoenix if San Antonio had been able to pull out this Game 4. How diminished might Nash have been, after an unintentional shot from Duncan closed his right eye, if the Suns' point guard had to play Tuesday night?
The louder questions from here, however, will be asked about the Spurs' future after the Suns left them more confused defensively than we've ever seen this team in the Duncan era. As a result, San Antonio is suddenly looking at its longest stretch without a championship (three seasons and counting) since the wait from 1999 until 2003 between Duncan's first and second rings.
The good news: San Antonio will have the blossoming George Hill and DeJuan Blair coming back next season, along with the 20th pick in the June draft, which is the Spurs' highest selection since winning the lottery in 1997 and the right to take Duncan. Team sources say the Spurs remain optimistic about their chances of convincing 2007 draftee Tiago Splitter to leave Europe and come to the NBA next season.
The complicated part: San Antonio has a payroll of nearly $80 million after an aggressive offseason led to the acquisitions of Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess, but the Spurs couldn't build on a first-round win over old rival Dallas that had many experts pegging them to be back in the title mix.
As a consequence of this one-sided defeat, San Antonio is expected to at least consider trading Parker to either give its three-man core a fresh look or find a younger big man to pair with Duncan, after signing Ginobili to a three-year contract worth nearly $40 million last month, and with Duncan and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich under contract through 2011-12.
Duncan wouldn't be specific about areas that need improvement, saying only: "We'll start doing whatever we've got to do to prepare for next year."
3. All A-Twitter
4. Daily Dime Live Recap
ESPN.com writers and TrueHoop Network bloggers chatted with fans and gave their in-game opinions throughout Sunday's games -- all in Daily Dime Live.
5. Extreme Behavior
Rajon Rondo, Celtics
Whenever you post a triple-double that has you mentioned in the same sentence as all-time greats Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson, this spot in the Dime is automatically reserved for you.
Manu Ginobili, Spurs
The Spurs needed Ginobili to be at his best in order to keep up with the high-scoring Suns, but he struggled in Game 4, missing 9 of his 11 attempts from the floor.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"He looked like Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini."
-- Grant Hill comparing teammate Steve Nash's swollen eye to the former professional boxer
6. Rondo's Triple-Double Paces C's
ESPN The Magazine
BOSTON -- The Big Three is a cool, if dull and unoriginal, nickname. So let's keep it. It's useful, reminding us that Boston has a trio of likely Hall of Famers who play with heart and guile and great skill.
But what's been hinted at for the past year has now become official. The near triple-double in last year's playoffs didn't do it. The All-Star berth this past February didn't either.
But what's been happening in this series between the Celtics and the Cavaliers, particularly what happened Sunday in Game 4, has turned the whispers into a scream, the suggestions into this undeniable, airtight fact: The Big Three no longer has a supporting cast. It is the supporting cast.
The Boston Celtics are now Rajon Rondo's team.
Just like the Phoenix Suns belong to Steve Nash, the Utah Jazz to Deron Williams, and the Chicago Bulls to Derrick Rose, this proud, dynastic franchise is now led by a versatile, 24-year-old point guard who plays unlike anyone else in the NBA.
To read the entire column, click here.
7. NBA Video Channel
8. Suns Have Plenty Of Choices
SAN ANTONIO -- At first glance, the Phoenix Suns' shocking sweep of San Antonio came about because they beat the Spurs in such a variety of ways -- in transition in Game 1, on the boards in Game 2, off the bench in Game 3, and with the Steve Nash-Amare Stoudemire pick-and-roll weapon in Game 4.
But there was one constant in all four victories, and it was this: When Phoenix went small, the Spurs had no answer. Whether it was Jared Dudley or Grant Hill playing the 4, the Suns would space the floor, force switches on pick-and-rolls, and send Spurs' big men like Tim Duncan and DeJuan Blair into terra incognita.
"Their bench kicked our butt," was what Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after Game 3, but a more telling revelation, as a Spurs spy mentioned to me, was that they simply couldn't handle Phoenix's small lineups -- especially with Frye at center, as he was during the Goran Dragic-Leandro Barbosa explosion in Game 3.
"Throughout the whole series, every time we went small and they went small, we had the advantage," said forward Jared Dudley.
The Spurs' first five defended Phoenix's powerful offense very well. In eight first and third quarters, which were played mostly by the starters for each side, the Suns scored only 194 points, or about 97 per game -- a total the Spurs eclipsed three times and missed by a point in the other. In other words, San Antonio's first- and third-quarter defense was more than good enough to win the series.
In the second and fourth, however, the Suns' bench would come in and use a smaller lineup. Phoenix would play small for much of the quarter even when the starters returned -- either Channing Frye or Stoudemire was the only big man for long stretches of both quarters throughout the series.
And in those quarters, the Spurs allowed a whopping 244 points -- or 122 a game. That won't get it done.
"It's just hard for us to guard them for 48 minutes," said Popovich.
It was a different bench player hurting the Spurs every night -- Sunday it was Dudley's turn, as he recorded 17 points (6-of-7 shooting), six rebounds, four assists and two steals in what he called his best game as a pro. But the common theme was that small lineup.
Meanwhile, San Antonio didn't have enough talent and floor spacing to respond to a smaller but more nimble Suns defensive lineup.
"Offensively, it spreads the floor with shooters. Obviously, with [Frye] in there we have more range defensively, we can switch, we can hard hedge, we can get out there. The problem we have is sometimes on the glass with Duncan, but when they go small it basically breaks even."
For Phoenix, the big takeaway from this series isn't the small lineup per se, but that their depth gives them the option of matching up in a number of different ways to seek out an advantage.
"It didn't really work against Portland," said Hill, "but it worked against San Antonio. "You might see that little scrambling lineup at times [in the Western Conference finals] when things aren't going well, but each series is different."
9. LeBron Wants Shot At Rondo
Special to ESPNBoston.com
You know the cliché. Playoff series are all about adjustments. Most times, the adjustments are subtle, such as the Celtics' decision to pressure the ball more often in Game 4, which coach Doc Rivers credited with being a huge difference-maker in Boston's series-evening 97-87 victory over Cleveland on Sunday.
But how about this for an adjustment? LeBron James, first-team All-NBA defense, starts Game 5 on Tuesday night guarding the player who he says is "dominating" this Eastern Conference semifinal: Rajon Rondo.
If LeBron has any say in the matter, it could well happen. In fact, according to one courtside observer, James and Cleveland coach Mike Brown got into a heated discussion about whether James should cover Rondo at the critical moments of the fourth quarter. Brown ultimately decided against it, but that could change moving forward.
"I would love to,'' James said after Rondo had eviscerated the Cavs with 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists. "It's something we maybe should explore because Rondo is definitely dominating this series at the point guard position. For me, I don't have a problem taking Rondo or guarding Rondo throughout the course of the game. If the coaching staff or the guys want me to do it, I will."
To read the entire column, click here.