Suns fans have dreamed of this moment since Steve Nash returned to the Valley in 2004 and made the Suns contenders again.
Since then (aside from whatever last year was), the Suns have been juggernauts …… except when facing San Antonio in the playoffs, steamrolling everyone else to the tune of a 6-1 mark in playoff series but losing all three postseason matchups against the Spurs in this time.
Most everybody thought the window had closed, that the Nash-Stoudemire Era had run its course after last season’s ill-fated run at even the last spot in the postseason fell short. The Duncan Spurs seemed to be one roadblock the Suns would never get past.
One rival TrueHoop blogger thought of the Suns as just “a speed bump on the Spurs’ trek through the playoffs” and another thought it would be “a fairly short series” that the Spurs would win in five or six.
Before the series started the Suns spoke of how they didn’t believe in curses, swearing up and down that this is a completely different Suns team. After Phoenix’s 107-101 Game 4 win, we now know that is true.
Not only did the Phoenix Suns finally slay the San Antonio dragon (not to be confused with The Dragon), they thoroughly dominated the Spurs in this series sweep.
This must be beyond any Suns fan’s wildest dreams as far as expectations entering the season are concerned. A team that nobody thought would be much more than first-round fodder at the beginning of the season is the first squad to reserve a date in the conference finals.
Sweeping the Spurs — and finishing them off in the Alamo City no less — represents sweet, sweet revenge for all the years the Spurs found a new way to excruciatingly eliminate Phoenix.
“San Antonio has had our number for so long and these teams have been through so much,” Amare Stoudemire told reporters after the game. “We have some new additions to this team that really made a difference.”
We learned early in Game 1 that Steve Nash was taking this series personally, even if he tried to keep an even keel about his mindset when speaking to the media. Nash exploded for 17 points in the first quarter of the series, an aggressiveness that he never exhibits that early, setting the tone for what was to come. That first quarter of the series proved that one last shot at San Antonio — a team that had knocked Nash out of the playoffs six times in as many attempts — meant a little more to Nash.
Then tonight in Game 4 Nash the warrior surfaced to take the Suns home after he suffered a nasty black eye courtesy of a Tim Duncan elbow in the third quarter. The one-eyed Steve Nash, whose right eye was swollen so shut he could barely see out of it, finished the Spurs off with a 10-point, five-assist fourth quarter, including a cold-blooded pull-up three with nine minutes left after San Antonio tied the game.
For the first time in his career, and the first time in seven matchups dating back to 1998 and his first stint with the Suns, Nash has gotten the better of San Antonio.
The same can be said for Amare Stoudemire, who scored a game-high 29 points on 10-for-17 shooting tonight, after the 27-year-old lost the first four series of his career against Duncan and the Spurs.
On the flip side, Tim Duncan put up better than a 20-10 for the series, but his impact wasn’t the same as the Tim Duncan who routinely thrashed the Suns earlier this decade, particularly on the defensive end where he was vulnerable to the Suns’ numerous pick-and-rolls.
Tonight the Suns and Grant Hill also did a nice job limiting Manu Ginobili, who scored just 15 points on 2-for-11 shooting.
For Phoenix it was different guys stepping up every night to complement their stars, and on this night it was Jared Dudley’s turn once again (like in Game 2) to be that guy. Dudley filled up the stat sheet, going for 16 points on 6-for-7 shooting (3-for-3 threes), six boards, four assists and two steals. His plus 12 in 31 minutes led the Suns.
The difference between this Suns team and prior versions is that there are Dudleys and Dragics that can step up every game so that it’s not always just the Nash and Amare show, as great as that show is.
“Our teams just match up better against the Spurs than Portland and we were able to use our depth, defense and everyone took turns stepping up,” Nash said. “We aren’t the most talented team, but we believe in each other and enjoy playing together. It is a pleasure to play with this group.”
Except for the first game, the Suns also fell behind in every first quarter but never panicked. By this game when San Antonio took a 21-12 lead nine minutes into the contest, the only question was when and not if the Suns would come back.
For the second straight game the Suns’ offense got better as the game went on, as Phoenix followed up weak first quarters with scorching-hot fourths in both game in San Antonio.
The Suns also figured out San Antonio’s defense as tonight’s 107-point effort marked the first time all series they didn’t go for 110 on the Spurs (and the first time all year for that matter).
I questioned the Suns’ killer instinct after their Game 4 loss in Portland, but I think we can now chalk up that defeat to a confluence of circumstances (Roy’s miraculous return, Aldridge’s series-best game, the Suns being unable to hit a shot) that weren’t likely to repeat again.
And they haven’t as the Suns have reeled off six victories in a row since then, their longest postseason winning streak in franchise history.
In all the Suns have ripped off eight wins in nine games since their Game 1 stinker against Portland, dropping just the aforementioned Game 4 in Portland, and really that just continues the Suns’ amazing run from throughout the second half. The Suns are now 36-9 since their Jan. 26 loss to Charlotte, and they are 22-4 since losing to the Lakers on March 12.
So while the Suns in the conference finals might be a huge shock considering preseason expectations and their 12-18 stretch in the middle of the year, the Suns have clearly been one of the top two teams in the conference for a while now, and that’s not even to mention their league-best 14-3 start.
Believe it or not, this is an elite basketball team that plays really well together and has a different player step up every night. There’s still the stars, Nash and Amare, but this team is about so much more than them, and for once against San Antonio they were able to get stops when it counted.
When Jason Richardson drilled that bailout 25-footer to put the Suns up 10 with two minutes left and drive the final nail in San Antonio’s coffin, there was nothing fluky about the Suns being conference finalists.
After being on the wrong end of so many bad bounces against the Spurs, the Suns made sure that not even a swollen-shut eye could stop them from steamrolling into the next round, even when Amare inexplicably fouled George Hill with 26 seconds left for a four-point play that cut it to two. In other years, Manu probably gets fouled for a four-point play when he was closely defended on a subsequent attempt with San Antonio down four with 11 ticks remaining, but that was not to be this year.
Instead this was a night that many Suns fans thought would never come, a night that provides a healthy dose of revenge for all the Spurs have done to the Suns this decade. Enjoy it Phoenix, you’re witnessing a special basketball team.
“This is a great feeling,” Stoudemire said. “This has been unbelievable this season and is an unbelievable group of players. We don’t want this to end.”