Screen-master Spurs show refusal to change NBA hierarchy

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PHOENIX — Hours after the Miami Heat roared back to the beat the Indiana Pacers in the biggest game of a busy Wednesday NBA schedule, the San Antonio Spurs put a similar elbow into the chests of the Phoenix Suns and their recent success — literally.

It’s not that the Suns are anywhere close to how far the Pacers have come, but the storyline is similar. It’s always about how the league’s hierarchy is about to change, but rarely do the best teams let it happen without some pushback.

Phoenix wasn’t using inexperience as an excuse after a 108-101 loss to San Antonio on Wednesday.

“I think we’re past that point in moral victories,” said head coach Jeff Hornacek.

The Suns committed 19 turnovers, and they looked like a young team they are down the stretch against the Spurs. It hasn’t happened much this year, but Phoenix doesn’t play a team like San Antonio much, either.

Goran Dragic had 18 points on 6-of-18 shooting. Eric Bledsoe had 15 points, five rebounds and seven assists while hitting 6-of-15 attempts. And despite Phoenix’s two point guards struggling from the field, the Suns were in it. San Antonio had its own turnovers issues, after all.

So the game came down to the physical Spurs, without playmaking point guard Tony Parker, getting great looks with great screen action. Stretching the limits of legality, San Antonio elbowed, grabbed and created the space to score.

Call it a lesson from a championship-caliber team.

“The way the whole team runs their offense, we were talking about that in the cold tub,” said Phoenix center Miles Plumlee after the game. “Just how sharp they are, they’re always moving. There’s always options … I think we can take some notes from that.”

Without Parker, the Spurs put steady ball pressure on the Suns point guards to disrupt the offense. Patty Mills, Cory Joseph and even Kawhi Leonard did their work defensively, forcing the Suns into mistakes that led to 25 San Antonio points.

“I think we (have) turnovers when things get stagnant and guys don’t know what to do,” Plumlee said. “We just need to really solidify our jobs on the offensive end and run our sets, and I think we’ll be OK.”

Down the stretch, the Spurs got the job done, but they did it the same way they had throughout the game. Manu Ginobili scored 11 of the Spurs’ 15 points in the final 4:11 of the game, snaking his way around off the ball to get open when the pass finally hit him.

“Every time — I mean, you chase Ginobili, you chase one of those guys off of screens — they’re going to hit you every time,” said forward P.J. Tucker, accepting his own miscues — he went over the top of screens rather than chase the veteran Ginobili around them, he said. “They know how to use (the screens) and they know how to play each other.”

And in what was, for the most part, a very competitive and even game across the board, the screens set between the two teams were comparatively different.

Chalk it up to experience, even if the Suns don’t want to admit it.

Channing Frye scored 15 first-quarter points but only played 28 minutes and finished with 22 because the Spurs went small. They began covering every pick-and-pop play with Boris Diaw or even smaller defenders after Tiago Splitter made the start but played just 13 minutes after the hot opening quarter for Frye.

After the Phoenix starters built a lead as big as 10 points, San Antonio rallied and took control for the most part. Only an offensive rebound and bucket by Plumlee with five minutes to play gave the Suns hope by putting them ahead 95-93, the first and only Suns lead in the second half.

Then Ginobili, who scored 24, went off. The young Suns saw what happened, and despite the loss and the refusal to take in moral victories, probably learned something. Perhaps their first-year coach did as well.

As the Heat showed the Pacers out in South Beach, Wednesday was day of learning experiences and refusals by the NBA powers that anything has changed since last season.

“We set really good screens sometimes,” Frye said. “It’s just, we don’t do it as consistent as them. I think they set screens with a purpose. I think we’re still trying to be more consistent with why we set screens all the time.

“You can’t win all of them,” he added, “but you look at it and you’re like, we can better from this.”

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