The media has already credited the Phoenix Suns with overcoming their playoff demons against the San Antonio Spurs. Not so fast.
DISCLAIMER: I’ve loved the San Antonio Spurs since David Robinson burst onto the scene in the early ‘90’s. I’ll do my best to not let my affection for the Spurs influence this analysis. (And by the way, yes, I’m still a diehard Sixers fan. Unfortunately, being a diehard Sixer fan over recent years is more equivalent to dying. Having an adopted team eases the pain.)
It’s Thursday afternoon and the Spurs dropped Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals to the Phoenix Suns about 18 hours ago. San Antonio now trails two games to none as the series shifts to Texas. Everything I’ve watched, read, and heard since game two has in some way shape or form insinuated that the Suns finally overcame their playoff struggles against the Spurs. Either those folks forgot this is a best of seven series, or they’re getting ahead of themselves.
Let’s be the clear, the Suns have been fantastic in the first two games. They’ve outworked and outhustled San Antonio in nearly every facet of the game, most notably on the offensive glass. Additionally, whether open or contested, Phoenix’s shooters have buried several big shots. Steve Nash has the offense executing flawlessly (with the exception of the first half of game two), and the Phoenix bench has severely outplayed San Antonio’s. The Suns are certainly in control of the series and look poised to move onto the Conference Finals. These are all facts. There’s no point in arguing them.
Here’s one more fact: Four victories are needed to advance to the next round, not two. As teams move deeper into the playoffs, wins three and four to clinch a series become increasingly more difficult. On top of that, the Suns need to snatch those last two wins from a battled tested, dogged, four-time champion. Forgive me, but I think it might be a little early to write off the Spurs.
It would be easy to remind everyone of the 2008 playoffs where a New Orleans Hornets pick-and-roll offense decimated the Spurs in games one and two, but ultimately fell to San Antonio in seven. Gregg Popovich essentially laughed off any comparison to that series, so I will too. The Hornets were a young, unproven playoff team. The Suns boast veterans with playoff experience and have more depth than the 2008 Hornets.
So why shouldn’t we write off the Spurs? Well, because they’re the Spurs. Popovich is a 200 pound lighter version of Andy Reid. (Actually Reid is a 200 pound heavier version of Pop because Reid has no championships, but I digress.) You won’t see Popovich overly excited about wins, nor will you see him down over losses. His “never let them see you sweat” demeanor has rubbed off on his players, especially Tim Duncan. The Spurs don’t panic. If they’re down late in a game, they’re down late in a game. If they’re going home to San Antonio down 2-0 in a seven game series, guess what? They’re going home down 2-0. It is what it is. This is what makes the Spurs dangerous. Teams that don’t panic are tough to dismiss from the playoffs because you can’t rattle them, you have to beat them. San Antonio has been in this situation before. They understand what it takes to battle back.
The Suns on the other hand have a decade of devastating losses and unlucky events hanging over their heads (Horry body-check, Duncan’s unlikely three, etc…). Victories in the first two games shifted those memories from focus, but they’re still there, waiting to creep back in. If the Spurs take games three and four, you can bet the Suns will start to hear the whispers of previous playoff collapses against San Antonio. Unlike the Spurs, the Suns can be rattled (in my opinion). They lack that championship pedigree. Steve Nash is a fantastic player but has never played in an NBA Finals. We could argue all day about whether he’s to blame for that or not, but in the end, his playoff failures can’t be ignored. If the Spurs make a run in this series, who will the Suns turn to for direction and leadership? No one on the Phoenix roster has even appeared in an NBA Finals. No one.
I’m not arguing that the Spurs are the better team or that they’ll definitely come back to win the series. Unfortunately for San Antonio, there isn’t just one thing they need to fix in order to climb back into the series. What I am saying is that the Spurs and Gregg Popovich aren’t the type of team you discard after a 2-0 lead. Popovich is arguably the best coach in the league and a defensive mastermind too. He’ll find a way to limit the Suns’ offensive strengths and give his players an opportunity to win. On the floor, the Spurs have two NBA Finals MVPs in Tony Parker and Duncan, a proven “assassin” in Manu Ginobili, and the overall experience to outlast the Suns in a long, brutal series.
The Spurs could recover and return to Phoenix locked in a 2-2 tie, or continue to struggle and be eliminated in a short series. Both are very real possibilities. For now, I think it’s a little premature to credit the Suns for “finally” overcoming their previous playoff failures against the Spurs. Playoff demons don’t just disappear…they must be overcome. The Suns need two more wins to finally put their past to rest. Those last two wins won’t come easy.