<
>

The Suns shake off disappointing playoff history

Steve Nash, Tim DuncanChris Covatta/NBAE/Getty Images

The Spurs congratulate the Suns on beating them in the playoffs, which is a new thing.

In Sunday's Game 4, Tim Duncan's elbow opened up Steve Nash's eye. Nash's Suns, meanwhile, opened up a new chapter in their playoff history. In no small part because of their inability to get past the Spurs, the Suns have changed coaches, general managers and players since Nash arrived in 2004. And the losses have been brutal -- the Suns' many huge playoff wins have been compromised by a string of bizarre circumstances and agonizing defeats, mostly against the Spurs. A review:

2007 playoff fracas

The series started bloody, and got more controversial from there. In the opening game, Nash was whistled for a foul when he tried to poke the ball away from Spurs guard Tony Parker in crunch time of a close game. The two banged heads. Parker crumbled to the court -- there were concussion worries. Nash appeared fine initially, but soon began bleeding uncontrollably from the bridge of his nose. The cut would later require six stitches. It was a one-point game when the collision occurred, but Nash missed 45 seconds of the final three minutes of playing time as trainers applied various bandages and solutions trying to stop the blood that ran down Nash's face, onto his uniform shorts and even onto the court. By the final buzzer, the Spurs had a five-point victory.

In Game 3, Bruce Bowen sent Nash to the floor with a knee to the groin. (The foul called on the play was later upgraded to a "Flagrant 1" penalty.)

Game 4 is one of the most talked about games in NBA history. The Spurs had a nice lead at home halfway through the fourth quarter. The Suns went on a 17-4 run to take a decisive lead. That's when the Spurs' Robert Horry touched off the bitter defining incident of Nash's time in Phoenix to date. Trailing in the closing seconds, the Spurs were forced to foul, and Horry did, with a hard hip check to the quick-moving Nash. The Canadian point guard hung airborne for a moment, before landing hard into the scorers' table, lying on the court for a moment, and then getting up to go after Horry. After a multi-faceted but ultimately harmless melee on the court, the Suns had tied the series, and many observers were confident Horry would be suspended for the following game.

But as part of a long-term commitment to reducing the bench-clearing brawls NBA fans don't like, the league has strict rules about leaving the bench area. If there's an "altercation" on the court, any players leaving the bench area are automatically suspended for a game. Video review showed that two Suns, Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, ran from the bench towards the trouble. Both were suspended for Game 5, Horry was suspended for Games 5 and 6.

At the time, Nash said he was too disgusted by the NBA's decision to comment.

The Suns had homecourt advantage in what was now a three-game series, but had lost two of the three players they used to guard Spurs ace Duncan. They lost at home in Game 5, and couldn't muster the road win in Game 6. The Spurs went on to win an NBA title Suns fans felt belonged to them -- many still have not forgiven the league for, as they saw it, robbing their team of a title in the name of preventing the kind of brawl that simply wasn't in the cards.

Suns fans grew even more jaded when they learned after the 2007 Finals, along with the rest of the world, that referee Tim Donaghy had been gambling on NBA games. Donaghy called Game 3, which the Spurs won by seven points after shooting nine more free throws than Phoenix. There are borderline calls in every basketball game, but it's worth noting that in a retroactive video analysis, Suns fans found calls from that game to question, including some by Donaghy.

2008 no redemption

The Suns wanted nothing more than to avenge themselves against the Spurs, and they had re-tooled for the encounter by adding big man Shaquille O'Neal. As luck would have it, as the West's sixth seed, Phoenix drew the third-seeded Spurs in the first round.

The first game was a battle for the ages. Phoenix led by 16 in the first half, and stayed ahead until the game's closing minutes. They led by three, and had the ball, with 12.6 seconds to go in overtime, when Stoudemire fouled out by charging into Kurt Thomas. On one of the Spurs' most important plays of the year, Manu Ginobili drove hard to the basket. O'Neal abandoned Duncan entirely to chase Ginobili, who flipped a pass out to Duncan who was waiting at the 3-point line. Duncan had not made a 3-pointer all season, but he stroked that one, sending the game to double overtime. O'Neal and Stoudemire were both fouled out by the end of the second overtime, which Ginobili was well aware of as he drove for the layup that gave the Spurs a 117-115 lead, and the win. The Suns ended up losing the series in five and went home deflated. They would end up changing all kinds of things about the team -- the front office, the roster, the coaching staff -- as a reaction.

Welcome to Phoenix

When Steve Nash first came to Phoenix, and Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" offense took the league by storm, the Suns only lost two games in qualifying for the Western Conference finals, where the top-seeded Suns ran into the second-seeded Spurs. Stoudemire scored almost at will, but the Suns -- coping with an injured Joe Johnson -- fell in five tightly contested games.

The following season, in 2006, the Suns were without Stoudemire, who battled knee injuries all season. They managed to knock off both teams from Los Angeles in seven games apiece. In the conference finals, they met the Mavericks, who had just defeated the Spurs. Then-Suns assistant coach Alvin Gentry placed a call to his friend Gregg Popovich (see below) seeking insight into the Mavericks, but it was to no avail. With Stoudemire in street clothes and ace stopper Raja Bell on crutches, the Suns won the first game in Dallas. But the Mavericks changed tactics and solved the riddle of the undermanned Suns, going on to the Finals where the Suns felt they could have beaten the Heat, who won that year's title.

Ancient history

Even before the Nash era, the Suns and Spurs had memorable tangles. Last time the Suns beat the Spurs in a seven-game series , the key play was a Charles Barkley jumper over David Robinson in 1993. The Suns also beat the Spurs in 2000, in a five-game first-round series. The two teams also met in 2003, in what may have been the highlight of Stephon Marbury's career, even though his Suns lost in six games. Marbury banked in 3-pointers at the end of regulation, and at the end of overtime, to secure a remarkable Suns win in Game 1.

The two teams' current coaches have strong ties, too. The Spurs' Popovich is widely considered one of the best -- if not the best -- coach in the NBA. But until 1988, he was coach of the Division III Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens, and had spent a season at Kansas volunteering under Larry Brown. When Red McCombs bought the miserable Spurs, one of his first acts as owner was to bring in Brown, who in turn hired some assistants, including Popovich, who would later be the best man at Brown's wedding. Also on Brown's coaching staff that year was ... current Suns' head coach Alvin Gentry.

Close games

After the Suns eliminated the Spurs on Sunday night, the two teams have played 20 times since 2004, when the Phoenix Suns became the distinctive up-tempo Nash-led team that so many people enjoy watching. Even after losing four straight, the Spurs have won 12 of those 20. But, in a sign of how close the series have been, the Suns have slightly outscored the Spurs through the four series' worth of games, 2063 to 2054. Both teams are averaging 103 points per game, which helps to explain how it is that Suns vs. Spurs has become such a reliably entertaining playoff matchup, even if it has appeared, until this season, to have been a lopsided one.