A few questions after the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Phoenix Suns 92-85 on Thursday in a likely preview of the Western Conference semifinals . . .
How Spurs contain potent Suns
The Suns' lead has slipped to just two games on the Spurs in the standings, but it's effectively one game since the Spurs hold the tiebreaker by virtue of taking the season series, 2-1. What's the danger of Phoenix falling down to the No. 3 seed?
The possible issue to watch for is how this fall could psychologically affect this team. Their focus this season has been on trying to get home-court advantage for the entire playoffs. Now all of a sudden, you could see they might not get home court in the West finals, and not even the second round. And I think home-court will mean a lot more to Phoenix than it does San Antonio if and when the two teams meet.
Anything else worrisome for the Suns?
Depth. The Suns haven't played great down the stretch, and some of it has to do with fatigue. Every Phoenix starter played at least 34 minutes in this one. James Jones was totally taken out, and he's an important one-way player -- if he only takes three shots, he's not helping you. Kurt Thomas played only 14 minutes -- he has to be able to play more against Tim Duncan, because he has the physical and mental ability to defend Duncan.
How do the Spurs frustrate such an offensive juggernaut?
Because of how they play, they don't allow you to always expose their one-way players. If you're strong enough to impose your will, you put guys in position to succeed. Take Bruce Bowen. He took only four shots --- if you're the Suns, you've got to force him to take 10-12 shots. But Phoenix is not good enough defensively to do so. And that helps Bowen's confidence in putting all his energy in defending a guy like Steve Nash.
What's the key for San Antonio when they play an offensive powerhouse like the Suns?
They can take away 3-point shots from Suns. They Suns live on that 3-pointer, and you can take a way a lot of the effectiveness of their role players when you defend it well. The Suns made 2-of-11 3's in this loss.
The other thing the Spurs do well is having guys they can put on Nash. They have the discipline to keep their eyes on Nash's options when he makes his penetration -- they take away his angles on the interior and perimeter passing. When he threads the needle for what would be an assist against many other teams, ends up being a turnover against the Spurs.
You expect these two to meet in the conference semifinals?
Yes. And I expect the Spurs to struggle in the first round, which they seem to do every year that they win a championship. And they could struggle against whomever they face, whether it's the Lakers or the Nuggets. They could lose two games, but that just conditions them for the next rounds. Even last year they lost twice to the Kings. Either possible first-round team would be difficult for them.
The Spurs are a nightmare for the Suns. The Spurs are going to be able to slow the game down because of Duncan and Parker. Parker (season-high 35 points on Thursday) gets where he wants to go. And they're going to rebound the basketball with Duncan in there. Those two things can limit the effectiveness of what the Suns like to do.
Dictating tempo. We'll be hearing that a lot in the weeks ahead.
Let's go back to how the Lakers controlled tempo with Kwame Brown in last year's playoffs. I think it's safe to say San Antonio has the man for the job in Tim Duncan. And I think that will have a lot to do with the outcome.
Watch ESPN analyst Greg Anthony on NBA Shootaround on Friday (7:30 ET, ESPN) before Cavs/Wizards (8 ET) and Mavs/Nuggets (10:30 ET). (Questions above posed by ESPN.com editor Andrew Ayres)
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AP Photo/Eric Gay
Suns center Amare Stoudemire (15 points, eight boards) found was defended effectively by Spurs forward Tim Duncan (22 and 10) during San Antonio's win.
Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars tells Chad Ford about the state of the Pistons. Does his team complain too much?
I'm a Pistons fan, but I can't help but feel like their East-best record is really misleading. Aside from a fourth-quarter rally against Miami and the blowout game against Phoenix, when's the last time the Pistons beat an even marginally good team?
The Bulls have their number. As do the Jazz...as do the Rockets...and it's hard to imagine that they could beat the Spurs, Mavs or Suns in a series. The 8 seed in the East will be awful, so it's hard to imagine a stumble in the first round. But given the Pistons' awful record at home, I could see them getting clubbed by whoever the 4/5 survivor is.
Miami takes OT win in Cleveland
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Heat forward Antoine Walker leans on LeBron James in the Heat's overtime win on Thursday. Walker was instrumental in Miami's victory, hitting six 3-pointers and scoring 20 points.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
The Heat defeated the Cavaliers, 94-90, in overtime after being outscored 11-0 over the final three-and-a-half minutes of regulation. And it was a shocker that jump-started Miami's offense: Shaquille O'Neal scoring on a 10-foot hook shot, 15 seconds into overtime. That was Shaq's longest field goal since Nov. 12, and it equaled his longest in OT over the past 10 seasons.
Pardon me while I pull a Rob Neyer here. Let's do a side-by-side comparison of two players, whom we'll call "Player A" and "Player B"
Player A: 20.1 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 2.2 bpg, 53.1-percent shooting
Which player is doing better? Player B, right? Now suppose I told you that Player A is Elton Brand . . . and Player B is Al Jefferson since the All-Star break. Yes, really. And if you do this same exercise with any of the game's other top power forwards -- excluding the holy hoops trinity of Dirk, Duncan and KG -- you'll find Jefferson can hang with any of them.
It's been slow and painful at times, but Big Al has arrived. The 22-year-old has finally reduced the turnovers, fouls and defensive lapses enough to allow his dominating post skills to shine, and as a result he's been one of the few bright spots in a painful Celtics season. However, we may not see any more of him this year. Jefferson has a sore knee and since the Celtics want Greg Oden, er, I mean since the Celtics don't want to risk worsening his injury, it's possible they'll shut him down.
Bill Walton takes us a on trip through the NCAA Tournament, including stops in San Diego, Sacramento and Atlanta.