Tim Duncan versus Amare Stoudemire. Steve Nash versus Tony Parker. Manu Ginobili versus the Planet Orange boos.
All of the parallels are there between this year’s playoff series and the bloodbath matchups of years past.
But this Suns team is a different animal than the one that was KO’d by the Duncan three-pointer and throttled by the Robert Horry hip check. Everything that killed the Suns in ’04-05, ’06-07 and ’07-08 is no longer viewed an Achilles’ heel in Phoenix.
Alvin Gentry’s Suns possess what NBA analysts have criticized them for since Mike D’Antoni took the reins — defense.
None of these players are standout individual defenders (aside from Jared Dudley and Grant Hill), but they get the job done as a team. Their rotations are crisp, they bring energy, and it is crystal clear that they understand the importance of locking down.
The old Phoenix teams wouldn’t even get a hand up on ‘D,’ hoping the Spurs would falter. The old Phoenix teams would elect to concede layups rather than foul to keep the pace of the game up.
This Suns team finally gets it defensively. As a defensive unit you have to put the pressure on the other team to make a play, and Gentry’s squad has done exactly that through two games. They trust their rotations, they trust their teammates and they are the epitome of five guys playing together for a common goal, and it shows on the defensive end.
Parker and Ginobili should be able to torch Phoenix’s sub-par defenders every time down the floor, right? Well, it isn’t all about who’s a better athlete or who has a better first step, but rather making the Spurs do things they don’t want to do offensively.
Like forcing Duncan to pass out of a hard double team. Like changing Ginobili from a scorer to a passer. Like making Parker settle for threes and outside jumpers. Like chasing Matt Bonner off the three-point line, causing him to toss up an off-balance runner.
No, the Suns are by no means a stellar defensive team, but whenever the Spurs have taken control of the momentum, a defensive stop has fueled a big Suns run. They get stops when they matter most, something the Suns of old failed to do time and time again.
And so much of this defensive prowess comes from exactly what Suns fans begged for during the D’Antoni days — a legitimate bench. I laughed when I watched Kenny Smith say on a Yahoo Sports clip that this Suns team doesn’t have the same bench as the Suns of the D’Antoni days. He obviously hasn’t watched the Suns’ pine riders very often this season.
This isn’t to throw Smith under the bus, however, as Phoenix’s bench doesn’t exactly feature any headline grabbers. But they have created an identity for themselves as an energy-filled group that can surprise you at times offensively, led by Mr. Spark Plug Jared Dudley.
The Suns of old would deteriorate down the stretch against San Antonio because Steve Nash and his running mates would battle against a brutal Spurs defense for about 40 minutes or so, only to run out of gas when it mattered most. But Gentry trusts this group, and the fact that Nash doesn’t have to re-enter the game until around the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter is huge for not only him, but also the entire team.
You could see in Game 2 how energized he was after literally laying on the sidelines for about 20 minutes of real time. And his fresh legs showed when he connected with Amare Stoudemire on at least three pick-ann-rolls down that stretch that sealed the victory.
All of this because of the Dudleys, Amundsons, Dragics, Fryes and Barbosas. Dudley brings it on defense, doing a number on Tony Parker one play, then charging hard with the double team on Duncan the next.
Channing Frye is about as tough a matchup as any in the NBA when he is locked in, and it showed in Game 2. He forced Duncan out of the paint with his three-point stroke and was so effective that the Spurs even tried hiding Timmy on Grant Hill. The wily vet smirked in the face of Duncan after rocking him to sleep and sticking back-to-back pullup jumpers.
Needless to say, the bench was undoubtedly one of the missing pieces to the puzzle during the old Suns-Spurs epic battles, but thanks to Gentry’s confidence and the energy of this unit, things have changed.
The final piece to the puzzle has been all of the Suns scorers not named Amare and Steve. Jason Richardson has been the guy this playoffs, but it’s not only him. Almost everyone on this team can shoot, and almost everyone on this team can score. In years past the Spurs used to hedge so far out on Nash-Amare pick-ann-rolls because there really wasn’t anyone else who would kill them.
Nash would be bottled up in the backcourt, Ginobili would come away with the ball and convert an easy flush on the other end. But if the Spurs try the same thing this time around, Nash doesn’t have to force the issue. One escape pass, a swing or two and you have Frye, Dudley or Richardson open for three.
It was easy for Suns fans to blame all of the heartbreaking playoff losses to the Spurs on the bad run of freak plays, but the true problem wasn’t Bowen’s knee to the groin, Nash’s bloody nose or Horry’s hip-check. The D’Antoni Suns simply didn’t play defense, rotated only seven guys, and didn’t feature enough offensive weapons to take the pressure off Nash and Amare.
But things have changed.
Yes, it’s only been two games — both in Phoenix nonetheless — and there’s no telling what will happen in San Antonio, or the rest of the series for that matter. But this Suns team plays team defense, boasts an energetic and underrated bench and features a handful of weapons that can put the ball in the hole, and it shows as Phoenix has taken the first two games form the Spurs for the first time since 1993.