Work in Sports
PHOENIX (Ticker) -- Phoenix Suns point guard Jason Kidd returned from a broken ankle to help shatter the San Antonio Spurs' hopes of defending their NBA title.
Kidd had nine points and 10 assists and brought out the best in teammates Rodney Rogers and Penny Hardaway as the Suns manhandled the Spurs, 89-78, ending their Western Conference first-round series in four games.
Without superstar forward Tim Duncan for the entire series due to torn cartilage in his right knee, the Spurs looked like a shell of the team that went 15-2 in last season's playoffs en route to their first NBA championship.
"We were never sure if and when we would get him back," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. "We hoped to have him for the second round. We didn't think he'd be ready for this series."
While Duncan watched helplessly from the bench, Kidd made a dramatic return less than six weeks after suffering what many figured to be a season-ending injury.
Although he appeared slightly out of sync and was sporting a new-look blond hairdo, Kidd energized the crowd and his teammates throughout the contest. He hit 4-of-5 shots and had three steals and two rebounds in 31 minutes.
"I originally wanted him just to play 22 or 24 minutes," Phoenix coach Scott Skiles said. "But I threw that out in the second half. He gave us a lift, a big lift. He gave us some energy. I talked to him, he said he was feeling OK during the game. We talked about it after practice and made the decision late this afternoon and it turned out to be the right decision."
"We talked about it last night," Kidd said. "I had a great workout and practice yesterday, there was no pain or swelling. It feels great, however, I feel like I smoked a pack of cigars or cigarettes or something. I did not want to disrupt them. I did not want to throw a monkey wrench into the program. But they said it was time. There was a lot of emotion at first, you could see that we were tossing the ball around like a hot potato, but everybody settled down and got back into the groove."
Hardaway and Rogers each scored 23 points for Phoenix, which advanced to the conference semifinals for the first time since 1995 and made sure the Spurs would be the first team since the 1986 Boston Celtics not to repeat as NBA champions.
"It's very sweet," Rogers said. "It's an ending to earning the (Sixth Man) award. I'm very pleased that we did beat the defending champions. We had an emotional lift with Jason coming back. Everybody was ready to play. We didn't want to go back to San Antonio. We wanted it more than them."
David Robinson did his best to keep the Spurs alive despite the absence of Duncan. The 7-1 center had 21 points and 16 boards, but went 0-of-5 from the floor in the final period as he and the rest of the the Spurs appeared to run out of steam.
"It's a tremendous disappointment," Robinson said. "I really thought going down the stretch that this team was coming together. The defense was looking very good. We all thought Tim would be back fairly soon and we could hold the fort together. It's just disappointing because even without him, in every one of those games, we were right there and had an opportunity to win."
Mario Elie scored 12 points for San Antonio, which became the first defending champion to be knocked out in the first round since the Philadelphia 76ers in 1984.
"I'm proud of our guys," Popovich said. "They did everything they could. They left everything out on the court. I'm hopeful that we can get healthy over the summer and get back. We just had to do what we had with who we had. But you can't take away what the Suns did and what they went through with their injuries."
Phoenix awaits the winner of the Los Angeles Lakers-Sacramento Kings series.
Hardaway hit half of his 18 shots and Rogers went 9-of-15 to establish a playoff career high in scoring. The two fed off Kidd's ability to penetrate and dish, setting up along the perimeter and in the low post for several uncontested shots.
Cliff Robinson scored 10 points for Phoenix, which shot 46 percent (37-of-80) and held a 49-43 advantage on the boards.
The Spurs were 0-of-9 from 3-point range and went just 24-of-39 at the line. They shot 37 percent (27-of-73) and committed 17 turnovers.
The champs did come out on fire, using a 14-0 run to take a 21-8 lead with 2:36 remaining in the first quarter.
But Corie Blount had a follow shot and dunk around a free throw by Hardaway before Rogers dunked to pull Phoenix within 21-16 entering the second period.
Rogers made a 25-footer and Blount and Hardaway followed with back-to-back layups, capping the Suns' own 14-0 burst and giving them a 22-21 lead with 10:35 left in the first half.
"They jumped on us, they hit their shots," Rogers said. "We stepped up defensively, forced them to make quicker shots. Even though they were open, they missed the shots. It wasn't a real offensive spurt, it was just defense."
Samaki Walker tied it with a free throw before Kidd got the sellout crowd of 19,023 on its feet with a 17-footer.
Kidd snapped a 24-24 tie and put the Suns ahead to stay when he connected from 25 feet with 9:19 remaining in the half.
The Spurs lost reserve forward Malik Rose with 4:10 remaining in the first half when he suffered a torn MCL.
"It's hard," said San Antonio forward Sean Elliott, who returned from an offseason kidney transplant this year. "A lot of these guys have a lot of pride in this locker room. We felt we could have got the job done even without some of the people that were hurt. Not just Tim. Malik and Jerome (Kersey) hurt us. After the way this ended, if anything, it makes me want to come back and play again. I really enjoy being on the floor, win or lose."
Avery Johnson's layup with less than a minute to go before intermission cut the deficit to 38-37, but Blount made a layup and rookie Shawn Marion sank an eight-footer to give Phoenix a 42-37 advantage at the break.
Luc Longley opened the second half with a short jumper, Cliff Robinson made a layup and Hardaway buried a 25-footer to give Phoenix a 49-39 cushion with 9:29 remaining in the third quarter.
David Robinson made two free throws and Johnson drilled an 18-footer to keep the Spurs within striking distance. But Kidd rested on the bench as the Suns extended the advantage to 68-56 entering the final period.
Elliott hit a pair of jumpers to spark the Spurs back into contention early in the fourth as they closed within 72-68 on Derrick Dial's layup with 7:40 to play.
But Kidd fed Rogers for a layup before Hardaway hit two free throws and slammed home a perfect alley-oop feed from his favorite playmaker, making it 78-68 with 6:22 left. San Antonio did not challenge thereafter.
"Jason inspired us a lot," Hardaway said. "If he just steps out on the court, he's gonna do something good for the team. And we were juiced going into the game. All season long, for some reason, we would spot them 10, 15 points and come back. But we never give up. It shows you what we have on this team."
In typical fashion, Kidd passed up a wide-open layup to feed Marion for another thunderous dunk with less than a minute remaining, giving the Suns an 89-75 bulge and sending the Spurs home for the summer.