This time, the symmetry was perfect. At long last the Suns were on the verge of vanquishing their long-time nemesis...when reality came smashing back. Or rather, an elbow into Steve Nash's face.
And, just like in the heated 2007 second-round series between these rivals, it seemed like a bloodied Nash being unable to play might turn the momentum of a pivotal game. Indeed, while the Suns seemed safe with their historically insurmountable 3-0 lead, against a team with a tested, championship-caliber core like the Spurs -- especially one that has ended your season three of your last four playoff appearances -- you don't want to give them even a sliver of hope. For Phoenix, the Spurs are the killer from every slasher movie: you don't relax until you see the body. And even then, you wait for the end credits.
Right on cue, Phoenix's comfortable lead evaporated as soon as Nash left the court late in the third quarter to get the gash above his eye stitched up. Certainly a here-we-go-again moment for the Phoenix faithful. But this time, Nash -- with plenty of help from his supporting cast -- authored a different ending. There was a back-breaking, transition three-pointer that gave the Suns back the lead. A floater and the foul in the lane over Duncan.
A pair of dribble hand-off screens, setting Amar'e up for mid-range jumpers. A gorgeous look-away dish to Dudley for a layup and one. A quick push upcourt, finding Stoudemire under the hoop again, reminiscent of the 7SOL-era Suns. And then, after evading the double team, another floater that all but clinched things (before an ill-advised foul on a George Hill three-pointer added another possession of suspense to the game). All told, the two-time MVP piled up 10 points and 5 assists in the final stanza -- all with his right eye nearly swollen shut. As SB Nation's Bright Side of the Sun (justifiably) gushed:
Tonight, the better team won. Tonight, the better team swept the other team.[...] Oh and that Steve Nash. Heart. Determination. Toughness. After catching an errant Tim Duncan elbow in the third, Nash returned to the game with an ugly Rocky Balboa looking right eye and provided silent inspiration for the rest of his teammates. We cannot say enough about this guy, the value he has to the Phoenix Suns, and how much better he makes his teammates.
But, obviously, Nash's individual brilliance was not sufficient to get the Suns past San Antonio. If that were the case, Phoenix would have beaten the Spurs long ago. While this Suns team has a similar statistical profile to D'Antoni's 7SOL squads, this year's vintage is "tougher" in a way belied by the numbers. Indeed, these Suns are even more unbalanced than their earlier counterparts, posting a better offensive efficiency than even the best D'Antoni teams at 115.3, but an even more pedestrian defensive efficiency of 110.2, good for 23rd-best (although they did markedly improve over the second half of the season). Furthermore, these Suns still like to run -- they placed the fourth-fastest pace this season -- but it's no longer their raison d'être, as it was under D'Antoni when they'd maniacally push the ball upcourt. They still rely on Nash and Stoudemire running the high pick-and-roll, surrounded by a bevy of three-point shooters to keep the defense honest (and those shooters have been better than ever this season, connecting at a 41% clip from downtown). But even though Alvin Gentry gives the opposition a steady diet of Nash and Stoudemire during "winning time", the Suns aren't as totally reliant on the pair as they used to be; they're more versatile. They run more sets with down-screens, more post-ups for players like Stoudemire, Richardson, and Hill. Simply put, they've become more conventional.
While this mainstreaming of the Suns may have robbed them of some of the aesthetics that made them such a joy to watch a few years ago, it's also made them harder to game plan for. Teams have to account for their running game, their pick-and-roll game, their three-point shooters, their post-ups -- and their suddenly explosive bench. Goran Dragic got his introduction to the national audience with his Game 3 eruption, but Jared Dudley and Channing Frye have emerged as key contributors, stretching opposing defenses and creating mismatches galore when the Suns go small. Indeed, with Robin Lopez out, the Suns' best lineup consists of some combination of Nash-Richardson-Hill-Dudley-Stoudemire-Frye, with Amar'e and Frye taking turns manning the pivot while Hill or Dudley takes over as the "power" forward in their smallball lineup. Against the gargantuan front line of the Lakers, Gentry may need to pair Stoudemire and Frye together much more frequently and eschew the Lilliputian lineup that they used with such devastating effectiveness against the Spurs -- but that's the beauty of this year's Suns: they can mix and match to play the kind of variegated game that they were heretofore incapable.
This new-found flexibility, and the usual MVP magic out of everybody's favorite Canadian, Steve Nash, just might be enough to get Phoenix back where they haven't been since (a lithe) Sir Charles was roaming the desert: the Finals. And if anyone deserves to (finally) play on that stage, it's certainly the indefatigable Nash.