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IN A LEAGUE starved for fresh story lines, the Phoenix Suns were the freshest the 2004-05 season had to offer. The Suns ran like a gang of jewel thieves fleeing a score; they featured a fresh face in third-year center Amar� Stoudemire and a transformed face in point guard Steve Nash, suddenly and miraculously the NBA's MVP; and they were coached by a loose and friendly guy named Mike D'Antoni, a former Italian league star who has kept his native West Virginia twang. All that, and they had a new owner, Robert Sarver, who, during a late-season game against San Antonio, flapped his arms like a chicken in the direction of the Spurs' bench when coach Gregg Popovich elected not to play Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, both of whom were nursing minor injuries.
The Spurs? Well, they were just kind of Spur-like. Even Sarver's antics didn't get much of a rise out of them. Which explains why going into the Western Conference finals, for which the best-record-in-the- NBA Suns had the home court advantage, San Antonio was cast as the stodgy and predictable face of conventionality, the Suns as the delightfully quirky arriviste.
So what did the Spurs do? They turned themselves into a black-and-silver version of the Suns. Who knew it was possible?
In the five games it took to dispose of the Suns, who did not set gently, San Antonio averaged 108.2 points, 12 more than its regular-season average. The Spurs played flawless transition basketball, they cast up threes, they rarely slowed the pace. In short, they offered up--with considerable assistance from the Suns, needless to say--a vision of what the NBA once was and could become again: two teams that ran competent, free-flowing offenses and had fun doing it.
Perhaps recalling that they had lost home court advantage in the first round by dropping Game 1 to the Denver Nuggets, the Spurs grabbed the edge from Phoenix with a well-played 121-114 victory at America West Arena, hanging a franchise playoff record 43-point fourth quarter on the Suns in the process. Several trends emerged from this game: The Suns' defense, always their weak spot, was exposed against a San Antonio offense that was willing to run not only its competent half-court sets but also out on the break; the Spurs did not let Nash dominate with his frenetic floor game and gave up only six fast-break points; the Spurs were not able to stop Stoudemire, whose rim-rattling dunks, open-court gymnastics and, most frightening, midrange accuracy would produce a 37-point scoring average in the five games; but the Spurs did stop Shawn Marion, the third prong in the Suns' offense, primarily with the bulldog defense of Bruce Bowen.
Game 2, also in Phoenix, turned the series. The Suns played with both speed and guts before the home crowd, but the Spurs outran them and outgutted them in the fourth quarter. Two plays down the stretch, both involving Ginobili, encapsulated what San Antonio was about. On the first, Ginobili penetrated into the paint but looked back outside to find Robert Horry, whose three-pointer with 2:31 left gave the Spurs a lead they never lost. Then Ginobili used a crossover dribble followed by a behind-the-back dribble to get to the hoop, where he turned his body and converted a reverse layup to clinch the win. "No coach in his right mind would teach a player to do a one-handed, left-handed crossover dribble, followed by a behind-the-back dribble, followed by a reverse layup in the Western Conference finals," said Ginobili's backup, Brent Barry. Ginobili's heroics, plus a 31-point Spurs fourth quarter, produced a 111-108 win and a 2-0 series lead.
Now supremely confident, San Antonio came to the SBC Center on May 28 determined to grab a 3-0 series lead. The Spurs continued to run at every opportunity--they put up 38 points in the first quarter--and to get a kind of pell-mell efficiency from Ginobili, who claims he doesn't look for contact but can't deny that he usually finds it. At one point Stoudemire almost pulled Ginobili's left arm out of its socket in an effort to derail a reckless excursion to the hoop; later, an undeterred Ginobili charged to the basket like a tailback hitting the line, knees up, challenging Stoudemire, a shot blocker, to knock him down. Stoudemire complied. Basket good, whistle, three-point play.
But for all the excitement and entertainment value provided by El Contusion ( Barry's nickname for Ginobili), the Spurs eventually turned to El Reliable. At the end of the 102-92 San Antonio win, Duncan had 33 points (in 13 fewer field goal attempts than Stoudemire, who scored 34), 15 rebounds and three blocked shots. The Big Fundamental's movements are so economical that it's hard to figure out exactly how he does what he does. Duncan doesn't have one signature move; he has several of them--a face-up banked jumper (usually from the left side), a turnaround one-hander, a scoop across the lane with either hand, a little half-hook that is unblockable. Steven Hunter, the Suns' young backup center, grew so frustrated trying to defend Duncan that he looked as if he was going to break down and cry. Steven, dude, everyone understands and feels for you.
Best of all for the Spurs, Duncan converted 15 free throws without a miss. Though not a bricklayer along the lines of Shaquille O'Neal, Duncan has had his share of problems from the free throw line; witness his 66.5% average in the last two postseasons. TD said after the game that he had only recently become comfortable with his routine at the line, though he was loath to go into specifics. Whatever else was going through Duncan's head, the phrase Take your time was certainly part of it, for his setup was so deliberate that one thought a USGA official was going to emerge from the stands and penalize him for slow play.
As Duncan stood at the line in the dying moments, a cry of "M-V-P!" arose from the SBC Center, a message directed at both Duncan and Nash. Nash deserved the hardware based on his regular-season play, but it had become obvious by now that, for all the speed shown by Ginobili and Tony Parker, Duncan was, predictably, the Spurs' MVP.