Watching game 1 of the third round on Sunday, I couldn’t help to think of how these two teams couldn’t be any more different. The Spurs defense has been ranked #1 for two years now, and over the last two years have held a Vader-like stranglehold on opposing teams. In fact their defense hasn’t been worse than 3rd since 1997. While many people would attribute the defensive shift with the arrival of Tim Duncan, 1998 also coincided with Gregg Popovich’s first full season as head coach. The two have been the only constants over that 7 year period. While there is no argument that Duncan is a top defender, that kind of team accomplishment doesn’t occur without proper tutelage. To NBA offenses, these two have been like Sith Masters. Emperor Popovich and Darth Defense.
The Spurs, in their black road uniforms, play a game that is less visually pleasing to the common fan. In their home white, the Suns give a new hope to those that would rather see scoring at a frantic pace. Steve Nash has arrived and is delivering passes with more accuracy than Luke Skywalker aiming for womprats in his T-16. Should the Suns win a championship this year, the league could be filled with clones running the ball up the court trying to score at a frenzy.
At a glance, Sunday’s game appeared to be everything the Suns could have hoped for. They played at a fast pace (98 possessions) and scored at an efficient rate (52.3% eFG). Phoenix wasn’t overwhelmed on the offensive boards (13 apiece), didn’t give the ball away (12 turnovers to the Spurs’ 11), and they held the edge at the line (24FTM to 21FTM). Last year this was a game the Spurs most certainly would have lost. The difference is the improved San Antonio offense (ranked 8th) shot a blistering 57.5%.
Tony Parker awoke from his three game carbonite freeze to lead the team with 29 points, while Duncan, Barry, and Ginobili combined for an additional 69. Barry’s inclusion in this group was especially damaging to the Suns, as he hit 5 of 8 from downtown and had 13 points in the fourth quarter. He’ll be important to San Antonio, because Bowen’s usefulness is minimized due to the Suns getting most of their scoring from positions he’s ill-suited to guard. In game 7 against the Sonics, Bowen chased Ray Allen around for 41 minutes while Barry only saw 22 minutes of floor time. However, on Sunday they reversed their roles with Barry earning 34 minutes and Bowen only on the court for 27.
With the Spurs out gunning the Suns, Phoenix residents might have “a bad feeling” about this series. The Suns’ weakness has been their defense and bench depth, both of which San Antonio exploited more than that ill-designed ventilation shaft in the Death Star. Things weren’t all bad for Phoenix, as they kept the tempo up and shot well. Joe Johnson’s eventual return will return Jackson back to the bench, to improve their depth. And although Marion’s jump shot looks like it comes from a galaxy far far away, he should be able to contribute more than 3 points in the future matches. If the Spurs win game 2, at least that’ll free up some time to get to the movies before the Finals start.