Sunday , May , 22 , 2005 C.Y. Ellis

NBA Playoff Preview – Phoenix vs. San Antonio

***** NBA Playoff Preview – Phoenix vs. San Antonio *****
From The Sports Network

By Warren Blatt, NBA Editor

PHOENIX SUNS: 1st Seed, West (62-20)

SAN ANTONIO SPURS: 2nd Seed, West (59-23)

(Sports Network) – The second-seeded San Antonio Spurs attempt to advance to
the NBA Finals for the second time in three years, as they face No. 1 Phoenix
in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals.

There is plenty of playoff history between the teams, as this is the seventh
time that these clubs have met in the postseason. The Suns defeated San
Antonio in the first round in 1992 and 2000 and in the semis in 1993. The
Spurs beat Phoenix in the opening round in 1996, 1998 and 2003.

San Antonio has made it to the conference finals for the third time in the
last five seasons, while the Suns have made it back to this round for the
first time since 1993.

Last season, the Spurs, who defeated New Jersey in six games in the 2003 NBA
Finals, were eliminated by the Los Angeles Lakers in six games in the
conference semifinals.

The Spurs have made it to the Western Conference finals for the seventh time.
They played the Lakers in 1982, 1983 and 2001, Houston in 1995, Portland in
1999, and Dallas in 2003. San Antonio is 2-4 in this round.

In this year’s playoffs, San Antonio eliminated the seventh-seeded Denver
Nuggets in five games in the first round and ousted No. 3 Seattle in six
contests in the conference semifinals. The Spurs are 5-1 at the SBC Center in
the postseason, and are 3-2 on the road.

The Southwest Division champion Spurs have been led by their two All-Stars Tim
Duncan and Manu Ginobili in the postseason. Duncan is averaging team-highs in
points (23.7 ppg) and rebounds (10.7 rpg), while Ginobili has contributed 21.5
points, 5.5 boards and 4.1 assists per game. The 29-year-old Duncan, who made
the series-winning basket versus the Sonics in Game 6 at KeyArena, has been
solid on both ends of the court, and Ginobili, who has been used off the bench
and as a starter in the playoffs, has given San Antonio a spark offensively
and a bolt of energy on defense.

Point guard Tony Parker has once again come to play in the postseason for the
Spurs. The 23-year-old Parker is averaging 17.9 points and a team-best 5.0
assists per game. The underrated Parker always plays with a chip on his
shoulder in the playoffs, and this years has been no different.

Veterans Brent Barry, Robert Horry and Nazr Mohammed have played their roles
very well for the Spurs. Barry, who has started when Ginobili comes off the
bench, has continued to play consistent basketball, while the 34-year-old
Horry, who has played in 186-career playoff games, has averaged 8.1 points and
Mohammed has pulled down 7.5 boards per contest.

Duncan, who injured his left ankle in Game 6 against Seattle, is playing like
a man on a mission. The two-time league MVP seemed bothered early in the first
round by his right ankle, which he sprained severely on March 20th versus
Detroit. The injury forced him to go on the IL and miss some significant time
during the regular season. However, as the playoffs have progressed the Wake
Forest product’s ankle has improved and his play has showed it.

San Antonio was a league-best 38-3 as the host during the regular season, and
was 21-20 on the road.

The high-powered Suns swept No. 8 Memphis in the first round and defeated the
Mavericks in six games in the semifinals. Phoenix has made it to the
conference finals for the seventh time in franchise history. The Suns, who
also made it to this round in 1976, 1979, 1984, 1989, 1990, 1993, are 2-4 in
the conference finals.

Reigning NBA MVP Steve Nash, who made played in his third All-Star Game this
season has been the catalyst for the Suns in the postseason. The 31-year-old
Nash, who averaged 15.5 points and a league-high 11.5 assists during the
regular season, is averaging 24.2 points and 11.7 helpers in the postseason.
He has hit clutch shots and continues to run the explosive Suns offense like a
masterful chess player.

Nash, who scored a career-high 48 points in Game 4s loss to Dallas in the
semis, averaged 30.3 points and 12 assists against the Mavericks, who Nash
played six seasons for before leaving via free agency for the Suns last
offseason.

All-Star forwards Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire have also continued to
play at a high level in the playoffs. Marion is averaging a 22.5 points and a
team-best 12.5 rebounds in Phoenix’ 10 postseason games, while Stoudemire has
been dominant in the middle and has contributed a team-high 26.4 points and
11.1 boards during the playoffs.

In the semis, Phoenix was able to deal with a tough injury that occurred in
Game 2 against the Mavericks, as starting guard Joe Johnson suffered a
displaced fracture of his left orbital bone when he was fouled hard by Dallas’
Jerry Stackhouse driving to the basket late in the first half. The 23-year-old
Johnson had to have surgery to repair the injury and was not able to return to
the series.

Johnson has averaged 19 points and 4.7 rebounds in six playoff appearance for
the Suns. He is expected to return at some point of the series against San
Antonio. If Johnson is able to comeback 100 percent healthy, he will give
Phoenix a huge lift emotionally and defensively as he is the Suns’ best
perimeter defender.

Veteran Jim Jackson has filled in for Johnson and has performed very well,
while Quentin Richardson, who spent the first four years of his career with
the lowly Clippers, is averaging 12.8 points and 5.7 boards in his first
postseason action of his career.

The Suns, who defeated Seattle in seven games in the 1993 conference finals,
are playing in the postseason after a one-year absence. In the 2003 playoffs,
Phoenix was eliminated by the Spurs in six games in the first round after
going 44-38 in the 2002-03 regular season.

Phoenix is the first Western Conference team since 1989 to make the conference
finals after missing the playoffs the year before. The Suns were the last team
from the West do achieve that, as they won just 28 contests in the 1987-88
campaign but improved 27 games the following season and would eventually get
swept by the Lakers in the West finals.

In the 2004-05 regular season, Phoenix tied the franchise record for most wins
in a season. During the 1992-93 campaign the Suns also went 62-20 in the
regular season and advanced to the NBA Finals. Phoenix lost in six games in
the championship round to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

Phoenix owns home-court advantage in this series. The Suns were 31-10 at home
during the regular season, and had the same impressive record as the visitor.

During the regular season, the Spurs won two of the three meetings between the
clubs. San Antonio was victorious on December 28th at the SBC Center and on
January 21st at America West Arena, while the Suns beat the Spurs, 107-101, on
March 9th on their homecourt.

FRONTCOURT: Duncan, Nazr Mohammed and Bruce Bowen represent San Antonio up
front. All three players have different roles, as Duncan does it all, while
the center Mohammed, who has averaged 8.0 points per game in the postseason,
can score around the basket and is a solid rebounder. Bowen, who was the only
Spur to play all 82 regular-season games, plays tough, physical defense
against the opposition’s best scorer.

Marion, Richardson and Stoudemire, who is shooting 5.9 percent from the floor
in the postseason, are dynamite for Phoenix. The Suns’ trio works unbelievably
well together. All three are very athletic and they excel in the fast-paced
style that Phoenix plays. Stoudemire patrols the middle and is one of the most
intimidating players in the league down low. The 6-10 Stoudemire is a monster
on the glass and is almost unstoppable when he gets the ball within six feet
of the hoop.

The Suns are too athletic for San Antonio up front. With the exception of
Duncan, the Spurs may have some serious matchup problems up front.

EDGE: PHOENIX

BACKCOURT: Nash continues to amaze. He is able to adjust to any defensive
scheme that is put before him. The All-Star guard has shown that he can score
when he has to, and will give the ball up if he is being double or tripled
team. The bottom line is that Nash makes everyone of his teammates better, as
he gets them the ball in the best possible position for them to score.

Until Johnson returns, Jackson will continue to start. The 34-year-old guard
is averaging 11.8 points and is shooting just over 47 percent from the field.
He is a solid replacement and has helped the Suns’ offense to continue to
score at a high rate.

The Spurs are not afraid to start Parker with Barry or Ginobili.
The 6-7 Barry does not make a lot of mistakes, is a solid shooter from long
distance and can play both guard spots, while Ginobili is effective coming off
the bench or as a starter. Parker will once again try to prove that he is
indeed one of the best point guards in the league.

Nash is still playing like an MVP. If he can continue his extraordinary play,
the Spurs are in big trouble. The NBA’s MVP is the difference here.

EDGE: PHOENIX

BENCH: If Ginobili comes off the bench, San Antonio becomes an even
stronger squad. He gives them a spark on both ends of the court, and also
provides energy that can help the Spurs come alive during tough times. The
veteran Horry adds valuable experience and has a history of hitting clutch
shots during crunch time in the postseason, while Barry helps the Spurs both
as a starter and a reserve.

Forward Glenn Robinson, who has averaged 4.8 points in the postseason, and
rookie guard Beno Udrih will also see some time on the court for the Spurs.
Both players provide a lift offensively for San Antonio, which also has 7-0
backup center Rasho Nesterovic, who has played just under 10 minutes in eight
appearances in the playoffs. Nesterovic can fill in for Mohammed or Duncan if
needed.

An overwhelming majority of the minutes for Phoenix goes to its starters. With
Jackson starting the Suns bench becomes very weak. Center Steven Hunter and
guard Leandrinho Barbosa will play the minutes that the Suns’ starters can’t.
Hunter is averaging 3.9 points in 11 minutes of action in the postseason,
while Barbosa has logged just over 10 minutes of court time in the playoffs.

The Suns also have veteran forwards Walter McCarty, who can hit the three, and
34-year-old Bo Outlaw. The two could see some minutes if needed.

EDGE: SAN ANTONIO

COACH: Gregg Popovich has guided the Spurs to a pair of NBA championships
(1999, 2003) during his tenure in San Antonio. He was named the 2003 NBA Coach
of the Year and has led San Antonio to the NBA’s best regular season record
three times (1998-99, 2000-01, 2002-03). Popovich knows what it takes to win
the big game and has the pieces to get the job done.

NBA Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni became the 12th head coach of the Suns on
December 10, 2003, and was just 21-40 after he replaced Frank Johnson during
the 2003-04 campaign. When the Suns signed Nash and Richardson in the
offseason, D’Antoni realized the type of club he had and allowed the explosive
Suns to run wild on offense this season. His philosophy of an up-tempo style
is perfect for his squad, and he has shown that he is a smart coach by playing
to his teams strengths during the regular season and into the playoffs.

The fact remains that Popovich has won a pair of titles as a head coach. San
Antonio’s general gets the nod here.

EDGE: SAN ANTONIO

PREDICTION: The Spurs are a team that is built to win in the postseason. With
Duncan playing great all-around basketball, and Parker and Ginobili performing
consistently, San Antonio is very tough to beat.

However, the Suns have shown that they can win in the playoffs with their
style of play. Nash has been awesome, and Stoudemire and Marion are two of the
most athletic and skilled players in the league. Phoenix’ young legs could
tire out the veteran Spurs in this series.

This should be an entertaining series to watch.

PHOENIX IN SEVEN

PHO SAN