NBA Finals: The Spurs’ lessons learned from the Phoenix Suns

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 Steve Nash. 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.

Tags: 2013 Nba Finals

  • Carlos

    Great Article Kevin!
    I always knew Popovich copy the Suns style of play, first with playing faster and using the 3pt shot more often then to playing more pick and rolls and forcing Parker to pass the ball more. Then after the sweep (with Nash with one eye outplaying their big 3 combine in the most important game of the series), Pop started to trust their bench more and built a bench like the Suns did back then in that series.
    Pop won’t admire it that he copy alot of things from the Suns while he is still coaching, BUT when he retires he probably will.

  • hawki

    Stern’s near criminal suspension of Diaw & Amare shows what happens when a petty tyranny becomes dictator.
    Fine them….ok……suspensions ?….complete nonsense….it wasn’t like they were on the court throwing punches.

    That wasn’t some innocuous game in November, but the final seconds of a playoff game that undoubtedly was going to decide who was going to win the NBA Title.

    The atmosphere was super-charged. It was one of the great Suns victories of All-Time.
    I remember thinking “the Suns are going to win the Title”, as Nash dribbled out the clock….beating the Cavs in the Finals was a foregone conclusion….and then…..well, we all know what happened.

    I still believe Stern held a grudge against the Suns ever since he lost the court case that allowed Connie Hawkins to join the NBA & (via coin flip) the Suns.

  • hawki

    oops….”petty tyrant”

  • BCrayZ

    Time for the Suns to copy the Suns.

    MUST reunite that killer bench unit. Let’s go SUNS!!!!

  • Mikey

    The 2007 series still makes me sick to my stomach.

  • Scott

    Remember Amare hitting a 3 to tie the game and force overtime back in the playoff series with Marbury?

    Now hitting an occasional late-game 3 is also in Duncan’s repertoire.

    It’s a good thing when a person can learn from someone else’s example. (Sadly, we see so little of that in the world.)

  • GoSuns

    Dang skippy BcrayZ! Lol

  • Voqar

    It’s painful to root for the spurs in the finals given the history with the suns, but I’d root for any team to beat despised Miami.

    I keep watching the playoffs/finals despite the officiating being so horrific that it makes me want to stop watching the nba entirely.

  • NOitall

    Look, I am a die-hard Suns fan, but am also not going to lie to myself. The Spurs dominated us because they were better, not because of conspiracies, ejections, bloody noses or anything else.

    The Spurs performance this year and throughout a 16 year period has shown us the depths to which the Suns never learned, adjusted, or copied. The Spurs are not “copying” 7SOL. They are playing basketball – fundamentally sound basketball on both ends of the floor.

    We were a flash in the pan. We were a gimmick. We had the culmination of almost all of the right players playing fun basketball. However, we were never championship material. In 1993, we were. But the Nash era, as fun as it was, was only an era where we won a lot of games, but never the important ones.

    The Spurs, as much as everyone hates them, were and are championship material. They have proven that – not by almost getting to the finals, but by actually getting there and winning. And not doing so in a 2-4 year stint where they simply dominated with a core group until it imploded. They have done it with a core trio surrounded by different players over a 16 year period. The Bulls were impressive, but so are the Spurs for that reason alone.

    The Spurs never went “through” Phoenix on their way to championships. They “RAN” through us. Even our 2010 sweep does little to change that. That Spurs team was an injury-riddled team with absolutely atrocious role-players. We met them at the right time – when they were simply not good enough to beat us. The fact is, had Brandon Roy not been hurt in the first round of the playoffs that year, we would not have beaten the Blazers. His lame attempt to play killed them. We simply drew the right matchups to advance to the WCF, but we all love to pretend that we were still really good. We weren’t.

    We can spend our time being hateful of the Spurs. We can be jealous, angry, spiteful or whetever other pointless negative emotion you can throw at them.

    Or instead, maybe we can put all of that aside and LEARN form them. Oh, and drafting the next Duncan might help too!

  • Mikey

    I think you meant to put quotations around “went” and “ran”.