Behind enemy lines with 48 Minutes of Hell


You may think you know everything about San Antonio after all that’s happened between the Suns and Spurs over the years. But to really get the lowdown on those villains from the Lone Star State I sent a handful of questions to Tim Varner of the TrueHoop San Antonio Spurs blog 48 Minutes of Hell.

Varner gives his take on the rivalry from the Spurs side, discusses how the Spurs have changed since the last time these teams met in postseason and gives a prediction that — believe it or not — Suns fans won’t exactly enjoy reading. Also be sure to check out my take on the Suns-Spurs series over at 48MoH.

This is the biggest rivalry in the NBA to Suns fans. What is this rivalry like to Spurs fans?

The rivalry question is entirely dependent on who you ask. Jesse Blanchard — a writer at 48MoH — sees the Suns as a speed bump on the Spurs’ trek through the playoffs. The Suns have never beat the Spurs in a meaningful series, and, in the eyes of some Spurs fans, this renders “rivalry” into something of an overblown description. And, of course, depending on how quickly the Spurs dismiss the Suns, the “rivalry” may be less of a speed bump and more of a passing lane.  But, you know, one should always admit degrees.

Personally, I think this is absolutely a rivalry, and one of the most entertaining in professional basketball. But it’s a little bittersweet for me. For all the tired talk of ‘the boring Spurs, Spurs-Mavericks and Spurs-Suns series have produced the most engaging, talk-about-it-in-10-years tit for tat competitions of the last decade. So why is it bittersweet?

Whenever the Spurs eliminate the Mavericks from the playoffs, a perverse pleasure swells within me. When Dirk Nowitzki assumes a post series podium with his despondent, end-of-the-ride sigh, I’m all awash in giddy self-affirmation. This has something to do with the way people like Mark Cuban and Jason Terry approach the rivalry. It’s OK with them if we all hate one another, so it’s easy to lose oneself in the occasional moment of fanboy glee. And, I’m half-afraid to admit, it’s a glee entirely unbecoming of an intelligent adult.

Not so with the Suns. Steve Nash is the non-Spur I’d most like to see win a championship, and he is, I think, the most deserving. The Spurs seem to have the Suns in a bad voodoo, but they’ve been good enough to win championships in the past. Sometimes you need a little luck, and they’ve had none.

How have the Spurs changed since the last time these teams faced off with no Bowen/Horry and now a three-guard lineup?

In one sense this is the Duncan-Spurs and the Nash-Suns and we’re simply rebooting the grudge match. But in another, these are completely different teams. The Spurs are more of an offensive team than ever before, and while they still attack through Tim Duncan in the post, much of their current brilliance comes from the three-quard assault of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and George Hill.

There’s a lot of talk about George Hill in the lead up to this series. What should Suns fans know about this guy and what kind of impact do you expect him to make?

Unfortunately for the Suns, George Hill is in bloom. He started coming into his own as a dominant basketball player over the last third of the regular season, but has taken big steps in the last two weeks. Offensively, he can get to the rim, score on midrange pullups, and spots up for three. But, more importantly, he’s San Antonio’s best defender. At the end of the season, John Hollinger rated him as the second-best defensive point guard in basketball, behind Rajon Rondo. Between Parker and Hill, Steve Nash will almost always have a trying assignment. George Hill was, perhaps, the Spur who hurt the Mavericks the most last round. I expect him to play at least as well against the Suns.

I know a lot of Spurs are banged up, so what’s the injury situation around this San Antonio team?

The Spurs don’t really have injury concerns, other than old age. Manu Ginobili’s broken nose might be a greater concern if it weren’t Manu Ginobili’s broken nose. In their different ways, he and Steve Nash are the same.

To me one of the biggest questions in this series is who will Nash guard. If you were Alvin Gentry, who would you put the two-time MVP on?

The Spurs are running a strict three-guard rotation. If I’m Gentry, I’d take my chances on Parker who is, disregarding my last answer, a little slower this season because of injury. But Parker still has zip, and Nash is not moving well right now. So maybe Nash on Hill is a better idea. But, you’re right, it’s a concern from a Suns perspective.

What is it about this team that allows them to turn it on when it counts after seemingly sleepwalking through the season?

You know how folks used to complain about Shaquille O’Neal taking the regular season off, thinking he could turn it on in the playoffs? Then, whenever O’Neal would falter in the postseason, the pundits would say, “See, Shaq should have played harder during the regular season. You can’t just flip a switch.” In some ways, the Spurs take the Shaq approach, minus the love handles, silly quotes in the press and postseason faltering. In other words, they’re very deliberate about their pacing. The Spurs know when to turn it on. And when they flip the switch, the house lights are blindingly bright.

Who do you got?

I like the Spurs in a fairly short series. Five or six. And I say that as one who thinks the Suns are currently the second-best team in the conference. The Spurs just match up well. Nash is a little gimpy, and the Spurs’ three-guard attack will keep him occupied on both sides of the ball. And the threesome of Tim Duncan, Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair is too much for the limited-by-injury front line of the Suns. That bit a few paragraphs up about the Suns’ bad luck against the Spurs applies here.

Having said all that, I really do think the Suns are the second-best team in the conference. And maybe better than I realize. The three Suns that most worry me are Jason Richardson, Jared Dudley and Channing Frye. Each of those players could hurt San Antonio. As in Horry-hipcheck-the-Spurs-into-the-scorer’s-table hurt San Antonio. But I see that matchup as Richardson, Dudley and Frye against Gregg Popovich. The smart money is on Popovich. His bark is bigger than their bite.