Let’s just say ESPN made a really good decision making the final tilt of the regular season between the Suns and Spurs a nationally-televised affair.
Like every other game the rest of the year, this game is HUGE. And it’s not just because the visitors will be wearing silver and black (although that doesn’t hurt).
The Suns enter this one two games ahead of the Spurs in the West standings. Since the winner of this game will also win the head-to-head tiebreaker, this game essentially counts as two in the standings. If the Suns win it, they can pretty much guarantee not falling below San Antonio. If they lose it, they will have just a game of cushion on their nemesis and be a tough four-game finish away from dropping below the Spurs.
Playing into Phoenix’s hands is the fact that San Antonio has played a pair of games — including a win late last night in Sacramento — since the Suns last took the court Saturday in Milwaukee. The Suns will be rested, refreshed and jacked up for this one, whereas the geriatric Spurs could be a bit tired. A mitigating factor is the fact that Manu Ginobili and Richard Jefferson led the team in minutes with just 34 and Tim Duncan only went for 29 last night.
The Kings game also marked the return of Suns killer Tony Parker from a broken hand that kept him out for a month. Parker went for eight points and a pair of dimes in 17 minutes of action off the bench as San Antonio eased him back into the lineup. I would expect him to play significantly more against Nash and the Suns, whom he always torches.
The Spurs are 31-19 with Parker in the lineup and 16-10 without him this season. They actually score and give up a few more ppg with Parker out of the lineup, but it’s not a huge difference.
It will be interesting to see if Ginobili continues to light the world on fire as he did since becoming a full-time starter after Parker went down. While playing five extra minutes a game, Manu has gone from averaging a 14.2-3.7-4.7 on 41 percent shooting to a 25.5-4.1-5.6 while shooting 51 percent. Don’t think Amare is the only 2010 free agent having a big second half, and it may be paying off for Manu in the form of a nice extension.
When Parker got hurt on March 6, I thought the Spurs would drop well below the rest of the West pack, but they’ve hung around thanks to Ginobili and the efforts of combo guard George Hill, who sprained his ankle Sunday in Los Angeles and will miss tonight’s contest.
In their last meeting, Robin Lopez at least made Tim Duncan work, providing a big body the Suns have rarely been able to throw on The Big Fundamental. With Lopez out, the defense of a guy like Jarron Collins could be critical and newly-signed big Dwayne Jones could get a few reps as well.
Jones, of course, went to training camp with Duncan and the Spurs and played all year with their D-League affiliate, a team that runs San Antonio’s system. That doesn’t mean he can necessarily stop the Spurs, but you’ve got to think that familiarity if nothing else will free him to play with more confidence than a guy in his situation normally would.
In some respects, Jones is kind of like a spy coming over to Suns camp after spending all year working with the enemy. Not that San Antonio has any secrets after all these years, but Jones definitely won’t be surprised by anything he sees from the Spurs. That is if he even sees the floor.
One big whom we know will see the floor is Amare Stoudemire, who torched Duncan and the Spurs for 41 and 12 on 15-for-28 shooting on Feb. 28 in San Antonio in the Jason Richardson missed dunk game.
This contest marks the start of Phoenix’s brutal five-game sprint to the finish, a schedule that features four teams with .600-plus winning percentages. Only Denver (.626) has a tougher finishing kick in the entire league than Phoenix’s .610 opponent winning percentage in its final five.
If the Suns don’t take care of business tonight, that brutal schedule could still push them to the bottom of the West playoff picture.