Preview: Phoenix Suns (31-28) at San Antonio Spurs (41-16)

San Antonio Spurs 105, Phoenix Suns 91

Suns

Spurs

After a two-game flop that ended the San Antonio Spurs’ 11-game winning streak, Tim Duncan had had enough. The 35-year-old, three-time NBA Finals MVP went for 28 points and 12 rebounds to help his team to victory on Thursday against the same tough-minded Memphis Grizzlies squad that beaten the Phoenix Suns a day before.

So as the Suns face San Antonio tonight in Texas on a back-to-back, perhaps they’re catching Duncan and the Spurs at the wrong time.

“We got back on track. That was the key to the whole thing, getting back on track,” Duncan told reporters after the win over Memphis. “Played awful against the Lakers. Got blown out, came back in there (Thursday) against another good team (against Memphis). A much better effort.”

But maybe it’s the Spurs who are catching Phoenix at a scary, desperate point in the season.

Their backs against the walls, the Suns showed their mettle against the Houston Rockets last night amid a weird game of Marcus Camby’s 18-rebound half and questionable calls from the referees. The Suns used a critical halftime against the Rockets to find their fire, and it all began with Marcin Gortat.

Phoenix’s center, matched against Camby, got rocked in the first half, allowing the cagey veteran to grab 18 rebounds and score 10 points. And though Gortat himself put up a healthy eight points and nine rebounds, it was Camby’s second-half numbers that, in comparison, lent evidence to the Suns’ sudden shift in focus. Camby grabbed no boards in the final two quarters, added zero blocks to his three in the first half, and scored just four more points.

If Gortat and the Suns kept the fire burning through the night, tonight’s game will surely spark the rivalry that, as of halfway through this season, we thought had all but fizzled.

Duncan lit up the Suns for 26 points in their last meeting on March 27, and the Polish 7-footer now has his shot at leading Phoenix to a victory that, coupled with the huge turning point in the Houston game, will keep the Suns in the hunt for a postseason berth.

Three keys for Phoenix

Press the buttons early and with force. When Steve Nash went scoreless in the first half last night in Houston, it was of course by his own design. But Alvin Gentry called Nash’s number on the first play of the third quarter, setting up a three-pointer for the point guard that began his explosion of 18 second-half points. Gentry must be ready to push every players’ buttons with force. He did so in that situation with Nash, with Jared Dudley’s involvement in the first half and in Gortat’s defensive effort in the second. Against the Spurs, he’ll need to have a short fuse when dealing with his players’ mistakes, effort levels and confidence problems.

Keep Parker out of the paint. We don’t know if Grant Hill will return to the starting lineup in his second game back from injury, but the Suns must find a way to keep a body in front of Spurs point guard Tony Parker. He can burn Phoenix with mid-range jumpers. So too can he get to the bucket and score with his patented floater or kick the ball out to three-point shooters. The Suns can’t afford to let that happen. If he blows by his defender, the rotations need to be quick, and the secondary rotations can’t lose sight of Matt Bonner, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green slipping around the perimeter for open threes.

Produce in the paint. The Suns sometimes win and die by the three-pointer, but they’ll win games by their continued attacking mentality. Phoenix got to the foul stripe 33 times in the win at Houston, and that had the Rockets back on their heels. Furthermore, San Antonio lacks any exceptional shot blockers outside of Old Man Duncan (1.5 blocks per game), making the opportunity ripe for slashers and big men to do some damage against a so-so interior defense.

And 1

The Suns’ Hollinger Playoff Odds improved from 26.8 percent to 45.7 percent after they beat Houston last night and the Nuggets and Jazz also lost.

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