Welcome to the NBA
finals. The league has thoughtfully fast-tracked its premier event to end the
drama a month earlier than usual. Lord knows it's not to beat the heat (or, for
that matter, the Heat, which is already beat), because this potential
championship series is being contested in the high-mercury venues of Phoenix
and San Antonio. But given the level of play in Sunday's opener between the
Suns and the Spurs, it sure seems as if the eventual champion will come out of
their Western Conference semifinal.
Yes, the Detroit
Pistons, who steamrollered the Chicago Bulls in the first two games of the
Eastern semis, going up 2--0 on Monday night, might have something to say about
it. And, yes, the same theory was proffered last year when San Antonio and the
Dallas Mavericks--remember them?--hooked up at this juncture in a seven-game
classic. The Mavericks won, beat the Suns in the next round, then promptly
collapsed against Miami in the Finals.
But both the Spurs,
who won Sunday's opener 111--106 at US Airways Center in Phoenix, and the Suns,
whose superstar point guard, Steve Nash, spilled more blood in Game 1 than
Floyd Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya did last Saturday night in Las Vegas,
have more heart than the Duds from Big D. And though the Pistons, seemingly the
class of the East, are well versed in execution and intensity, both Western
teams have more talent and depth in their toolboxes than Detroit.
analyzed the series on the basis of tempo--high-octane Phoenix versus dreary,
ball-control San Antonio--one of the factors that makes both these teams so
formidable is their adaptability. "The Suns have more control and rhyme to
their reason than people think," says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, "and
we run more than people think." Emphasis on the latter. What was most
troubling to Phoenix about Game 1 is that the triple-digit point totals should
have signaled a victory. "We'd rather play in the 90s or even 80s,"
says San Antonio forward Tim Duncan, who had a game-high 33 points, "but
we've got a lot of guys who are shooting the ball well, moving the ball well,
and the points are going up on the board."
Game 1 featured,
among other things: more matchup adjustments than at a swingers convention
(6'7" Suns forward Shawn Marion defended 6'2" point guard Tony Parker
one minute and switched onto the 6'11" Duncan the next); a technical foul
called before a shot was taken in the third quarter (Suns assistant Marc
Iavaroni got hit for griping about a foul whistled late in the second quarter);
and a head-banging collision between Nash and Parker that left the latter on
the floor but, more important, the former on the bench in crunch time.
The game turned on
the aftermath of that collision. After several frantic sideline attempts to
patch up Nash's schnoz, he finally left the game with 54 seconds on the clock
and Phoenix trailing 106--104. The role of ball handler and decision maker fell
to backup Leandro Barbosa, who would brick a three-pointer (he missed six of
his seven shots in the fourth) and commit a costly away-from-the-ball foul that
gave San Antonio a free throw and possession. By the time Nash, sporting a
disgusting bandage saturated with blood, returned with 9.1 seconds remaining,
the Suns were down by four, having missed four straight shots. "Some of us
have to be a little hungrier," Nash said after getting the six stitches
that finally stanched the flow from his nose.
Indeed, it is still
on the Suns, as it was two years ago when they lost to the Spurs in five games
in the Western final, to prove that they have the toughness and moxie to
compete with a team that has won three titles in the last eight seasons--three
more than Phoenix has won in its 39-year history. But what makes this series so
fascinating, San Antonio's championship pedigree notwithstanding, are the
similarities between two teams that seem so different. Consider:
superstars. Duncan would deem his life infinitely more joyful if he never had
to deal with the Fourth Estate. He can be friendly and insightful, but not in a
room full of microphones and cameras. Nash makes all of his dutiful appearances
but sometimes does so with the joie de vivre of a man being led to his
execution, as was the case after Game 1. Of course, by that time he had lost a
couple pints of blood, had a needle stuck in his nose and had his eyes
irritated by Collodion, a liquid adhesive that trainer Aaron Nelson had used on
the bandages he frantically applied to the cut that ran almost the length of
Nash's proboscis. (Plus, Nash wasn't all that happy about the final score.)
Neither Spurs forward Bruce Bowen nor Suns swingman Raja Bell were drafted out
of college, but both found their way to starting roles on elite teams by
becoming hard-edged defensive specialists. They work out together in Miami in
the summer and find some humor in their reputations as henchmen. "When I
hear some of the bad things people say about Bruce, I can't believe it,"
says Bell. "Then again, they say them about me, too." Adds Bowen,
"We both know what price we had to pay to get here. It's a bond we share
deep in our heart."
connection. Parker and Phoenix forward Boris Diaw remain the best of friends,
stemming from their days as callow whipping boys for the veterans on France's
national team. They spent 20 minutes talking and laughing at courtside before
the game, joined by countryman Ronny Turiaf, a Los Angeles Lakers forward.
During the game, however, most of the laughs were Parker's--he had 32 points.
Diaw (seven points) will have to do a better job of exploiting mismatches
inside throughout the remainder of the series.