Whether the San Antonio Spurs and their fan base consider the Phoenix Suns a rival or not matters little. Two of the Western Conference’s winningest franchises have quite the history because of sheer probability and the resulting volume of their clashes.
The Suns’ success in this history hasn’t been a high point in the Valley of the Sun, though the 2010 sweep served as a catharsis of sorts.
The tenures of Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan in the Alamo City paralleled the Suns’ Seven Second or Less era, and even before that time, Phoenix’s influence on the Spurs might be greater than anticipated. What’s made Popovich one of the best head coaches in NBA history is his ability to evolve. Even though his Spurs often defeated the Suns, they still learned.
The Spurs are on the cusp of their fifth title since 1999, and their last three title runs went through Phoenix.
Popovich has learned from his enemies. He speaks little as is so he probably won’t admit that, but he’s gotten the most out of his run-ins with the Suns. Here’s how the Suns fit into the Spurs’ progression of what looks to be a dynasty.
The teardrop from heaven and the teardrop learned (2003)
David Robinson’s last NBA season in 2003 and Manu Ginobili’s first was a memorable one. The Spurs’ second championship run started with a first-round matchup against the No. 8 seed Phoenix Suns, who were led by point guard Stephon Marbury.
But this storyline is about second-year point guard Tony Parker’s time to grow up.
Marbury had torched Parker in the regular season, averaging 32.5 points per game all while holding Parker to 29 percent shooting. He was bigger, stronger and had that New York swagger. Through two games in the first-round playoff series, Marbury averaged 29 points — many of those off the now-Parker-patented floater — and held Parker to 3-for-20 shooting.
Game 3 was all Parker’s. The Frenchman broke through to score 29 points on 12-of-21 shooting, and that was the end of the Suns.
It was Marbury’s banked three-point teardrop in the series opener that gave the Suns a surprising lead, but it was Parker’s development of the teardrop afterward that has carved out an MVP-caliber career.
Learning from SSOL (2005)
There is no guarantee the Spurs would cite the Suns for giving them new philosophies, but they certainly have molded themselves into a faster, spread out team offensively.
Take the first SSOL squad the Spurs beat in the 2005 Western Conference Finals. San Antonio, still growing out of the grind-it-out style prior to the contemporary handchecking rules, took 17 three-pointers per game during the regular season and had a pace of 89.9 possessions per game. Those numbers have gone to 21.5 threes attempted per game and a pace of 96.3 in 2012-13, growing closer to the 2004-05 Suns pace of 96.6 possessions per game and 24.7 threes attempted.
The worth of Boris Diaw (2007)
Boris Diaw’s best run as an NBA player came during the 2006 playoffs. Serving as the replacement to Amare Stoudemire, he averaged 18.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists in a playoff season that ended at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks.
The Suns didn’t face San Antonio in 2006 but the next year they met in the conference semifinals. Though Diaw struggled throughout the season upon Stoudemire’s return, both were part of the infamous bench violation following the Robert Horry hipcheck of. That earned the two forwards a suspension.
Diaw’s status a year ago as an overweight, washed up pro cut by the worst team in NBA history is now viewed as an oversight by the Charlotte Bobcats — or a sign the Spurs saw value in a former Sun.
On Sunday, the Spurs’ Game 5 victory against the Heat saw Diaw’s smarts come alive as he frustrated LeBron James. It was hardly surprising to fans who witnessed Diaw’s career get hit by pan-fried you-name-it rather than panning out.
Realizing the future (2008 and 2010)
The Spurs handily beat the Shaq-era Suns in 2008 but went on to lose to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. By 2010, the aging Spurs could no longer rely on Duncan and Manu Ginobili to play All-Star types of roles.
Phoenix’s sweep of San Antonio in the first-round of their final successful run with Steve Nash included the one-eyed Nash game and the rise of The Dragon, but for the Spurs it was a sign. Their rotation included Antonio McDyess, Richard Jefferson past his prime and spurts of a ragged Michael Finley.
With the Suns running through them, it was clear the Spurs needed youth. Over the next two years they got younger by adding players in the early- and mid-20s in Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Gary Neal and Patty Mills.
But enough of praising the Spurs.