PHOENIX — As the Phoenix Suns prepare to renew their postseason rivalry with the San Antonio Spurs, one team is talking about thriving with a three-guard attack and another is speaking about getting things done with defense.
Only it’s not who you’d expect it to be on both counts.
It might be time to check the sky for flying pigs after the Spurs rolled the Mavericks with some small ball via the potent combination of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and George Hill and the Suns clamped down on defense in holding the Blazers under 100 points in all but their series-opening loss.
“We’re a different team, and they’re a different team,” said Suns forward Grant Hill.
After Steve Kerr took over as Suns GM following the team’s 2007 loss to San Antonio, he tried to mold the Suns in the image of his former team. That included making the infamous trade for Shaq to give the Suns more size and eventually hiring former Spur Terry Porter as head coach to instill more of a defensive attitude in this club.
Although the Suns soon stopped trying to be the Spurs as Kerr reversed those moves by trading Shaq and firing Porter when he realized it wasn’t working, the Suns have still made defense more of a priority this season. Their defensive numbers have subsequently improved, leading up to the Portland series when they played arguably their best ‘D’ of the season. Hill said the team now talks about getting stops in huddles and truly takes pride in its defense, something that was never the case in the past.
The Spurs, meanwhile, are not adverse to running in the open floor, and they ranked ninth in both offensive and defensive efficiency, as opposed to the San Antonio teams in the past that excelled more on the defensive side of things.
“They’re different,” Steve Nash said. “They’re smaller, they’re much more of a pick-and-roll team. They’re looking to get in transition more than they have in the past. They are different, but obviously there’s the usual suspects. We know what to expect.”
With the usual suspects, everything begins with Tim Duncan, who has been the center of everything the Spurs do since being named the 1998 Rookie of the Year.
However, Duncan averaged career lows in points (17.9) and rebounds (10.1) while also playing the fewest minutes of his career (31.3) this season. He went for 18.5 and 10.2 in the first round against Dallas, including an ugly four-point performance on 1-for-9 shooting in Game 4, but the Suns — who acquired Shaq and shook up their franchise in large part to defend Duncan — know how dangerous he can be this time of year.
Jarron Collins will likely start off on Duncan, and if he returns Robin Lopez could be a factor as he did a nice job making Duncan work in the regular season. Amare Stoudemire likely won’t get much time on him at least until crunch time so that he doesn’t get into foul trouble.
“You’ve got to give him a lot of different looks,” Gentry said. “I can assure you we won’t give him anything that he hasn’t seen in his career that he’s been able to handle, so you’ve just got to try and mix it up and see what happens there.”
Then there’s the perimeter problems San Antonio will pose, as they will start with George Hill and Ginobili and then bring Parker off the bench, often playing all three together.
Ginobili played like a star in the second half of the season, averaging better than 20 points in both March and April while keeping San Antonio winning when Tony Parker missed six weeks late in the year with a broken hand. Despite playing with a broken nose, he also poured in 26 points in the Game 6 clincher against Dallas and averaged 19.0 ppg for the series.
Parker has been killing the Suns for years with his lightning quick first step, and despite coming off the bench he has still been playing big minutes and putting up numbers, averaging 15.8 and 5.7 against Dallas.
Hill, the second-year guard from IUPUI, is more of an unknown entity, but the Suns expect him to be a big factor in this series after he poured in 29 in Game 4 and 21 in Game 6 against Dallas.
“I think the big difference is George Hill,” his G Hill counterpart Grant said. “He’s been great, he’s been hitting big shots for them, played well for them this year and just gives them another, they kind of have that old Detroit three-guard rotation. Isiah, Joe and Vinny, and now you have Tony, George and Manu, three guys who are capable of getting their own shot, going off for 30 points, so we’ve got to do a good job as a team of containing them.”
Added Gentry, “George Hill is probably playing as well as any guard out here.”
I’m not sure who Nash will defend in this series. You obviously can’t put him on Ginobili and Parker routinely torches him, so I suppose you defend Hill with him and hope for the best since he’s not as explosive as the established San Antonio stars. Still, he’s far from a Bruce Bowen at the offensive end, and he’s no slouch defensively either.
Goran Dragic and his quality defensive skills could loom large in this series, especially because Dragic has played well against San Antonio in the regular season.
The Suns scored at least 112 points in every matchup against San Antonio, so scoring might not be the issue you would expect it to be with the Spurs as the opponent.
The question this year might be if Phoenix’s new-found defense will be tough enough down the stretch to slow down San Antonio’s skilled offense.