PHOENIX – There’s something about the San Antonio Spurs that always results in a Stomach Punch Game for the Phoenix Suns.
The Spurs were in the Valley for Christmas, and true to form Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and crew acted as grinches by stealing a 91-90 victory in a contest the Suns controlled for the vast majority of the first 47 minutes and 59 seconds.
None of that mattered when Roger Mason splashed a triple in the corner as the buzzer blared to give Suns fans that same sickening feeling in the pits of our stomachs we always seem to experience after Phoenix and San Antonio square off.
Overall this was a fantastic basketball game that started with a 11-0 Suns run and ended with both teams beautifully executing their final plays, the only difference being the Spurs’ went for three and the Suns’ for two.
“It was a good game,” Steve Nash told Suns.com. “They just made one more play than we did – it’s pretty simple.
“At the end of the game you look up and anyone could have won that game.”
Added Amare Stoudemire to Suns.com, “I think we played well enough to win. We played solid defensively, we rebounded the ball well, we played upside defense and did everything we could and had to, to win. Unfortunately, (Mason) hit a three in the corner. It happens sometimes.”
Although in the end it doesn’t really matter, the Suns used the same play that beat Orlando earlier this month to take their final lead, and apparently the Spurs didn’t watch videotape of that game because they allowed Phoenix to execute it as well as the team did the first time.
Again, Nash set a nice back pick on Michael Finley, who was guarding Grant Hill, and Tony Parker decided against switching onto Hill. That left Hill wide open for a go-ahead layup after Amare hit him with another beautiful pass from up high.
With the shot clock running down, I was thinking, “Shoot the damn ball already Amare!” so as to avoid a shot clock violation, before he hit Hill with a perfect assist to beat the clock.
Then, as usual, the Spurs one-upped the Suns.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said the final play was designed for Parker to penetrate and then make the decision to take a shot at the basket himself from close range or kick it out to a shooter in the corner.
Before the play, I was thinking the Suns were in good shape because surely they’d do anything possible to prevent a game-winning three, which would have meant the worst result was overtime. Since I paid $30 to scalp a ticket, I certainly wouldn’t have minded five free minutes, although ABC execs and those pining for Celtics-Lakers may have.
After using Nash on Parker for the majority of the game – a surprise because D’Antoni typically guarded him with a small forward and put Nash on someone like Bruce Bowen – Terry Porter put Hill on Parker for the game-ending sequence.
Porter knew Parker would be the key to the play if it wasn’t Tim Duncan, so he put a guy he felt could defend him better. Why not do that the whole game?
The defensive switch worked out well because Hill guarded Parker’s drive better than Nash did all game and it looked like Parker would have to force up a tough shot on the 6-foot-8 Hill when Jason Richardson inexplicably left Mason wide open in the corner to help on Parker.
Parker, of course, read the play beautifully, kicked it out to Mason for the wide open jumper, and he canned it as the buzzer sounded.
The US Airways crowd was simply stunned and meandered in the aisles for a couple minutes while the refs looked at the monitors only for the PA announcer to proclaim the ruling on the court stands, NFL style.
In hindsight it’s easy to say J-Rich messed up and start clamoring for Raja Bell, but with Parker having already scored 27 and with the way he always kill Phoenix, you can at least see what he was thinking.
However, you can NEVER, EVER leave a three-point shooter in such a situation, and J-Rich should have known better.
The Suns also lost because the Hill field goal was their only bucket in the final three minutes of a season-low, 14-point fourth quarter thanks to Duncan’s stifling defense.
After Duncan picked up his fifth personal foul at the 3:44 mark, the Suns three times fed Amare, who was being checked by Duncan, but Duncan did exactly what you’d expect him to do by playing excellent defense without fouling to cause Amare to miss and extend Phoenix’s drought.
Where’s the D?
The Spurs only hit 41.8 percent of their shots, but I’d blame that more on porous shooting than anything the Suns did defensively.
I can’t remember the last time I saw an NBA team shoot as many open shots as San Antonio did.
The Suns did a nice job on initial rotations, but on more times than I can count on one hand a Spur ended up with a wide-open jumper.
Oftentimes it was Duncan with an open midrange jumper with Shaq refusing to close out on him. Maybe this was the Suns’ strategy to let Duncan shoot jumpers, or maybe Shaq knew if he tried closing out Duncan would blow by him for an easy opportunity.
Either way, if the Suns play that kind of defense down the road, it won’t matter how good their offense is.
The bench takes Christmas off
The Suns got another great game from their starters, all of whom once again scored in double figures.
Amare went for 25 and 13, Shaq piled up a 23 and 12 line with four blocks, and the starters shot 52.4 percent as a unit.
But the Suns’ usually stout bench contributed just a Leandro Barbosa give-and-go layup in 48 minutes of floor time.
They shot 1-for-12 (8.3 percent) as a group, with Matt Barnes missing five shots and Barbosa four.
Robin Lopez picked up a pair of boards in eight minutes, but he continues to need to improve on his rebounding. On one first quarter possession our old friend the old man Kurt Thomas beat him to a pair of boards that led to an open Parker jumper, and even when Lopez had position Thomas seemed to beat him to the ball.