Fast Breaks: Suns-Spurs, Game 3
Goran Dragic's career-best quarter was something the Spurs weren't prepared for
Phoenix has been tactically attacking San Antonio all series, with great rewards
The Spurs' league-worst free-throw shooting has been on display for all to see
SAN ANTONIO -- The Spurs prepared for a lot of things coming into this series. Goran Dragic dropping 23 points in the fourth quarter wasn't one of them. Behind a head-shaking performance from the 24-year old Dragic, the Suns blew past the Spurs 110-96 to seize a commanding 3-0 lead in the Western Conference semifinals.
Welcome to the playoffs, Goran Dragic. Runners. Drop shots in the lane. Power drives. Three-point plays. A four-point play. Dragic looked like a flaming cartoon from an old game of NBA Jam. When Steve Nash exited the game before the start of the fourth quarter, the Suns were down one; when he came back in with 3:17 left, they were up 11. Nash's best move in the fourth was a between-break shoulder rub of his protégé. The only reason coach Alvin Gentry needed to reinsert Nash late was for his free-throw shooting.
"Steve who?" joked Gentry. "When we put [Dragic] in the game, we said you have to be aggressive, even with the chance that you could make some mistakes. He's as fast with the ball as anyone on our team. He's got a lot of little tricks."
"I don't know how many guys in the history of the game have had a quarter like that," said Nash. "I'm incredibly proud of him. We have a lot of confidence in him. We have been waiting for him to have a lot of confidence in himself."
Dragic gets the spotlight but he shares it with the entire Suns second unit. That unit -- Dragic, Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye, Jared Dudley and starter Grant Hill-wiped the floor with the Spurs first unit. They were so good, Amar'e Stoudemire and Jason Richardson didn't play a minute in the fourth quarter.
"Their whole second team kicked our butt," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "They continued to execute and did things the right way. We couldn't keep guarding them."
The Suns are dictating the style of play. Playing fast is the Suns M.O., but it would be understating the strategy to say they are simply running the Spurs off the floor. Phoenix has been tactically attacking San Antonio all series. They have gone small and forced the Spurs to counter with similar personnel. In Game 3, San Antonio, fearful of getting lit up by the Suns' perimeter shooters, started switching on screens. To counter that, Gentry called for isolation plays after the switch, often leaving Tim Duncan, Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair alone on an island defending Nash, Dragic and Grant Hill.
"It's the way they are beating us," said a visibly frustrated Manu Ginobili. "They picked us apart. They were the whole package. We just couldn't stop them. It was demoralizing."
The Spurs free throw shooting has become a serious problem. Coming into Friday, San Antonio had connected on 70.3 percent of its free throws, the worst percentage in the playoffs. They made just 57.1 percent (16-of-28) on Friday, including a back-breaking seven straight bricks in the second quarter that allowed Phoenix to close to within six points at the half.
"I think [the free throws] are going to affect a team mentally to some degree," said Popovich. "We lost a little bit of aggressiveness offensively [after] that."
Duncan continues to be the primary culprit. After a 5-for-12 night from the line on Friday, his free throw percentage dipped to a Shaq-like 48.3 percent for the postseason. Several times, it looked like Duncan was leaning in with the shots, almost trying to aim them in. As any coach will tell you, that strategy will never work.
Richard Jefferson and George Hill need to show up. No NBA team has ever rallied from a 3-0 deficit, but if the Spurs hope to make history, they need Jefferson (1-for-9) and Hill (1-for-7) to play better. RJ opened his evening by missing an open dunk and couldn't find the range from 17 feet, despite being wide open on the baseline for four attempts. Most of his shots came within the normal flow of the offense and his confidence in his J appeared to erode with every attempt.
Hill continues to struggle to find his rhythm. His play becomes even more critical with Tony Parker's status up in the air. Parker injured his shoulder in the second half and needed an X-ray (results weren't immediately available) after the game. When Hill and Jefferson struggle, the Spurs offense becomes predictable. And, more importantly, very defendable.
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