Game 1 preview: Spurs at Suns

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Western Conference Semifinals Game 1
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Suns 111, Spurs 102

The scene’s the same. Only the names have changed.

For the fourth time in six seasons, the Suns and Spurs meet in a best-of-seven series, but the Suns are looking for a different outcome this time around. Suns fans — and some players — just can’t put the series history behind them, but there seems to be a new sense of optimism in the air.

Everyone, from Suns coach Alvin Gentry to fans and analysts, is saying that this Suns team is different.

Could this be the year that the Suns finally get over the hump and knock the rival Spurs out of the playoffs? The Spurs are on another level than they were in the regular season, which is typical for them. There are a lot of things the Suns will have to do to move on to the Western Conference Finals, but a few things must be done particularly in Game 1.

Keys to the game

Setting the tone

Coming out of the gate strong might be paramount to any particular strategy the Suns will employ on the court. The Suns get two games at home to start the series and it is absolutely crucial that they control the momentum of the game and the series from the start.

That means making a statement early and often about who they are. Two wins at home by a convincing margin and not necessarily a blowout will show the Spurs, and Suns fans, that this team truly is different. Not only that, it puts the momentum squarely in the Suns hands. Winning Game 1 is a must.

Defense

Gregg Popovich’s Spurs teams are some of the smartest to ever walk onto an NBA court. They figure their opponents out and exploit their weaknesses. Defense, as we all know, has been the Suns biggest weakness for a long time. But the Suns have developed a defensive game at times this season and now more than ever is the time to use it.

If the Suns can establish a very strong defensive plan early and maintain it game to game, the series could be theirs in fewer than seven games. However, the Spurs are a team that can adjust fairly quickly, so the Suns may need to adjust their defensive plan as well as the series develops.

Tweaking the defense proved crucial against the Trail Blazers, as Jason Richardson was switched defensively off Andre Miller. Those kind of smart moves on defense will be especially key in this series with such a strong Spurs team and potential mismatches.

Deep ball

It’s no secret that the Suns love the three-pointer. It’s been key to a lot of crucial games this season. Without it, they likely wouldn’t even be here and certainly wouldn’t have beat Portland.

Establishing a three-point presence in this series will be  tougher though, given the Spurs’ defensive prowess. Thus, figuring out a way to find shots from deep in Game 1 will be key. San Antonio might figure out a way to stop it if the Suns do though, and adjustment will be a constant need here. The Suns can win without the three-ball, but it’s much easier when they’ve got it.

Containing Duncan early

Obviously, right? It won’t be easy without Robin Lopez, who can at least put a big body in front of Tim Duncan, but it’s possible.

In the Suns’ April 7 win over the Spurs, Duncan was held to 14 points and seven assists. Lopez was nowhere to be seen on the court. So, yes, it can be done, and the Suns will have to do it as much as they can. Holding Duncan around 20 or less a game would be great.

Looking at what Duncan did against the Mavericks (27 points in Game 1, 25 in Games 2 and 3) early, it is quite obvious that he still plays the biggest role in this team’s success. In Game 4, Dallas held Duncan to four points and nearly got the win, so Duncan is obviously not the only concern. But Game 5 saw Duncan again limited — to 11 points — and the Mavericks took a blowout win.

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