PHOENIX -- They fueled up their loud crowd by surging to a fat lead, clung stubbornly to the last of that lead until the final minute and never looked more like they belonged in a defensive duel.
For Suns, everything but a W
Especially since they were basically playing six guys.
The Phoenix Suns did everything they could Wednesday night to validate Dick Motta's old Wounded Tiger Theory. They came within a couple possessions of the fairy tale that the NBA's justice department was secretly -- but surely -- wishing for as much as the fuming locals waving those "Dirtier Than Dirt" signs, wearing "Stu Sucks" T-shirts and fully blaming the league for this predicament.
They did everything but win.
"We kind of ran out of ideas," Steve Nash conceded.
The Suns ran, more specifically, into the team that knows how to win Uglyball playoff games better than anyone. Which is why it seemed rather inevitable as the fourth quarter played out that the San Antonio Spurs, this time with a good chunk of the basketball public rooting against them harder than ever before, found a way to pull out an 88-85 triumph in Game 5 that gives them a chance to clinch this second-round showdown at home in Friday's Game 6.
Phoenix will have the suspended Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw reinstated by then. Of course, Phoenix will first have to work through the torture this outcome heaps upon the considerable anger still bubbling here.
Hardly. It can't get much more torturous for folks in the desert than seeing Bruce Bowen -- who's possibly more unpopular in these parts than Robert Horry -- drain his pet 3-pointer from the corner with 36.4 seconds to go, putting San Antonio up 84-81 for the visitors' first lead since 11-10.
"He's made a billion of 'em," Spurs teammate Tim Duncan reminded, looking incredulous when someone suggested that a back-breaker from Bowen could be classified as unexpected.
Bowen actually hit two triples in a fourth-quarter flurry of five 3s from the visitors, wiping away the last of the Suns' 16-point cushion . . . which was still a healthy 11-point cushion early in the fourth. The ending was particularly gruesome for Nash, who along with Raja Bell and Shawn Marion played every second of the second half but shot a weary 1-for-8 in the fourth.
To Nash, it must have felt like the Suns were indeed playing without Stoudemire, Diaw and Leandro Barbosa, who happens to be one of his favorite teammates. Barbosa is the biggest difference between these Suns and the group that lost to the Spurs in the 2005 Western Conference finals, when Suns coach Mike D'Antoni could barely permit himself to play his Brazilian speedster. Yet two years later, Barbosa isn't giving Phoenix much more than he was then, clearly unnerved by the Spurs' determination to shadow him at the 3-point line and the length waiting for him at the rim.
Needing a breakout game from Barbosa more than ever -- given the unavailability of Nash's pick-and-roll partner (Stoudemire) and the Suns' second-best playmaker (Diaw) -- Phoenix got an eight-point, four-turnover, six-foul game instead. Barbosa started in Stoudemire's place but accrued three fouls alone in the third quarter and was never a factor.
The result? With all the pressure Bowen (and others) applied to Nash, it became an increasing ordeal for the Suns just to get the ball up the court, on a night they were hoping to play at a zooming pace that would take the score well into the 100s.
The other result? The Suns' slow-death fade offset the legitimately withering D they played in the first two quarters. The Spurs had managed just 33 points and four offensive rebounds by intermission, shaking their heads at how many times tiny Phoenix was holding them to one-shot possessions.
"It was maybe our worst first half since I've been with San Antonio," Tony Parker said.
Marion was a big factor there. The Matrix always says he wants more offensive opportunities and seized this chance, ringing up 20 points and 11 boards by halftime before finishing with 24 and 17.
Kurt Thomas, meanwhile, was equally impressive, contributing 15 points, 12 boards and another round of effective work against Duncan until the Suns began to double-team Duncan with some increased frequency at the finish. Thomas is a pick-and-pop player offensively, but he was gamely trying to be a pick-and-roller in this one. Anything to try to loosen a defense overplaying Nash.
It just wasn't enough. Not with Manu Ginobili shoved into the second-half starting lineup to spark the Spurs and looking more dangerous than he did after getting that Game 3 poke in the eye, recording 22 of his 26 points after the break. Not even with Duncan (21 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks) giving the fairy tale some extra life by missing two free throws with 24 seconds left, keeping Phoenix within one-possession range.
After everything else they've seen in this series, you can safely assume that a game in the 80s was not in the Suns' dreams.
"Unbelievable defense," D'Antoni said. "I can't believe I'm saying [this], but our offense just couldn't make enough shots."
So now what?
If they can convince themselves that it really was the league office which decided Game 5 and play with a corresponding we-were-wronged, can't-lose-now freedom in South Texas, who would rule out a Game 6 surprise from the Suns?
But because the six Suns did everything but finish off a spiteful, seminal victory -- thereby keeping some of the hottest heat David Stern and Stu Jackson have ever faced at full blast -- they now face the reality of history. Of the 137 teams that were tied 2-2 in a seven-game series and lost Game 5, 85.4 percent of them have perished.
"No offense to Robert," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of the suspended Horry, "but I think they were missing a little bit more."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
AP Photo/Jason Babyak
This sign told the story of Amare doing time for leaving the bench during a Game 4 altercation. He's free for Friday's Game 6.
The Nets scored only six points in the fourth quarter, but held on to beat the Cavaliers, 83-72. That's the fewest points scored by the winning team in any quarter of an NBA postseason game in the shot-clock era. New Jersey also held the previous record, scoring eight points in the fourth quarter on May 7, 1993, in a first-round victory over Cleveland.
• The Nets were 9-for-20 (.450) from the foul line, becoming the first NBA team to win a playoff game despite making fewer than 50 percent of its free throws since the Lakers were 17-for-36 (.472) from the line in a win against Minnesota on May 31, 2004.
• Jason Kidd had six assists and eight turnovers, only the third postseason game of his NBA career in which he had more giveaways than helpers.
LeBron James was hoping to spend Wednesday night celebrating the Cavaliers' first berth in the Eastern Conference Finals in 15 years. Instead he ended up in a rush to be at his girlfriend's side after a deflating and momentum-changing defeat.
At halftime of the Nets' 83-72 blowout win -- yes, it was a blowout, the final differential notwithstanding -- James' longtime girlfriend, Savannah Brinson, had to be taken from Quicken Loans Arena on a stretcher to seek medical attention. She is eight months pregnant with James' second son.
As the second half was about to start James sat quietly by himself on the Cavs bench, occasionally motioning to family members sitting nearby.
A few moments later, after an inadvertent Richard Jefferson elbow opened a gash on his nose and caused a stoppage in play, The Rascals "Good Lovin'' started booming over the P.A. system during the brief timeout.
As the lyric "Now don't you want your baby to feel all right?" sounded, there's no telling what went through James' mind.
"I've got a family at home I need to worry about more than basketball," James said. "I think she's OK, from the little bit of information I have."
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Don't be too incredulous, Manu Ginobili. You definitely delivered for the Spurs in Game 5.
Quote of the Day:
Quote of the Day, Part 2:
-- Andrew Ayres
You know what I love about this suspension stuff in the Spurs-Suns series? Finally, the Spurs are the villains. Took 'em long enough.
How long were these guys going to roll up 60-win seasons and make deep playoff marches before somebody got angry about it? Usually a team this successful provokes almost instant, visceral hatred -- think of the Yankees, Lakers and Cowboys of recent times.
Yes, the Spurs are in a pea-sized market, so we're not constantly swarmed by obnoxious Spurs fans. But other small-market teams have provided a lot more animus for the rest of the league. Certainly nobody was a big fan of Oakland's Bash Brothers, for instance, and the Jazz were public enemy No. 1 throughout the West for much of the 1990s.
In this case, however, the Spurs were such nice guys that nobody could get upset about it even while they were getting their brains beat in. David Robinson? Sean Elliott? Steve Kerr? Avery Johnson? It's tough to cast guys like that as the enemy.
So in a way I'd like to thank Robert Horry for giving us something to get riled up over. Even now, the Spurs' case as villains is a bit tenuous -- they don't do the smug, we're-better-than-you thing that's expected from the enemy, and their personalities couldn't possibly be more vanilla. After a decade of dominance, about all they have on their villain resume is a shot to the crotch, a wayward kick and one hard foul.
Suns fans apparently tried to give their team a homecourt advantage long before filing into US Airways Center Wednesday night. A bogus bomb threat was made at the Spurs' team hotel around 9 p.m. Tuesday night, prompting local police to do a room-to-room sweep of the property.
Spurs guard Brent Barry made light of the incident before tipoff on Wednesday. "I couldn't understand it, because Suns fans are too classy for that," he said, tongue lodged firmly in cheek. "But I walked through the lobby and saw [TNT's] Craig Sager. Then it all came together. They were trying to blow up Sager. And who would have a problem with that?" Barry, perhaps angling for the league's good sportsmanship award, forewarned Sager about his intention to blame the threat on him.
• The Phoenix crowd came bearing plenty of signs to express their disfavor with the NBA's decision to suspend both Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the bench in the final minutes of Game 4, but most were pretty pedestrian. "A Horry-ble Decision" and "Free Amare" were the best of them. Local silk screeners, however, did themselves proud, producing a very fetching orange shirt that read, "Stu Sucks," in reference to NBA VP of Operations Stu Jackson, and a white T-shirt with black lettering that read, "Dirty Horry." (Think Clint Eastwood.)
• Steve Nash sounded thoroughly disappointed as he sat at the podium and rehashed the close loss, but he brightened, if only for a moment, when a reporter's cell phone rang in the middle of the press conference. "I hope she's hot," said Nash.
-- Ric Bucher in Phoenix
The Bulls have come back from the brink of elimination to force a Game 6 at home, becoming just the ninth team in NBA history to go from down 3-0 to 3-2 in a best-of-seven series. They are also the fifth team to accomplish the feat since the current playoff format began in 1984.
-- ESPN Research