Two teams with quickly-aging cornerstones are treating their situations very, very differently.
The San Antonio Spurs have 35-year-old Tim Duncan below 30 minutes per game as the Western Conference’s second-best team hands the torch of dominating figure over to point guard Tony Parker.
Meanwhile, the Phoenix Suns have kept the ball in the hands of 38-year-old Steve Nash just enough to be in the playoff hunt.
The Spurs and Suns will meet tonight at 7 in US Airways Center. It’s a game that 10th-ranked Phoenix could use as proof that its ready to chase down Utah, Houston and Denver, who in the Western Conference currently stand 1.5 games ahead of the Suns.
But no matter who Spurs coach Gregg Popovich runs out onto the floor — little injuries and age, as Andrew Lynch noted over at Hardwood Paroxysm, have plagued his team — Phoenix won’t have it easy. San Antonio has been wheeling and dealing of late, trading for former Sun Stephen Jackson and signing former Sun Boris Diaw and point guard Patty Mills this morning to add to perhaps the most diverse NBA roster make in both age and skill.
Even with rotation players in guard Gary Neal and forward Tiago Splitter questionable tonight, Popovich has the pieces to make any disparities in the rotation appear seamless. Youngsters DeJuan Blair and Danny Green have played in every game while rookie Kawhi Leonard and sharpshooting forward Matt Bonner have only missed one game apiece.
But now more than ever, the offense starts and ends with Parker, who’s quietly having his best season in the NBA by averaging 19.5 points and 8.0 assists a game.
Who knows which role players Pop will throw out against Phoenix? But do know that the Suns will likely get their usual dose of Parker, Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
Three keys for Phoenix
Guard Timmy one-on-one. Channing Frye has shown he can bang with some bigger bodies, and he or Marcin Gortat will need to hold their own against Duncan. They must do it without help, as well. Ginobili, Green and Bonner can all shoot the three-pointer, and any traps on Duncan open those opportunities for them to get hot. Duncan is still wildly efficient, but in shooting 46.5 percent from the floor, it’s clear he’s not the All-Star of old.
Control the tempo. This is weird to say: The Spurs are as good an offensive team as are the Suns, but they also do it with more efficiency. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Spurs are ninth in the league in pace with the Suns coming in 10th, yet San Antonio scores 108.4 points per 100 possessions (3rd in the NBA) to the Suns 105.2 (12th). Phoenix should pick and choose when to run, as transition opportunities will also help the Spurs considering their wide array of spot-up shooters.
Aggression for 48 minutes. With the lead or without it, Phoenix absolutely must show some fight through the entire game. Playing with controlled aggression was lost in most of last week’s fourth quarter in Miami and continued into the following Orlando game. While Alvin Gentry’s squad recovered to show focused efforts against a solid Indiana team and then in Cleveland resulting in a blowout, it’d be impressive for them to show that same swagger against a team as good as San Antonio.
- What’s a Suns/Spurs preview without a little reminiscing? Remember that Robert Horry hip-check that brought Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw off the bench and into suspension? Diaw returns to Phoenix tonight and, as expected, has put the rivalry with the Spurs in the past.
- As an aside and a shameless self-promotion, Tony Parker’s averages this season are eerily similar to Stephon Marbury’s numbers while he was with Phoenix, and that Marbury/Parker connection began in Parker’s second year, when he faced the Suns in the playoffs. His little floater? Pretty sure he stole that from Steph.