After the premature playoff exits of the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets, the San Antonio Spurs entered the Western Conference Semifinals as the last Texas team still standing in the NBA playoffs. While early word is that Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy and Dallas point-guard Jason Terry will shoulder the blame for their respective teams (at press time, Van Gundy was pondering a break from NBA coaching, while Terry was listed in trade rumors), it was back to business for the Spurs in Arizona. Game 1 of their series with the Suns played out like a heavyweight boxing match with plenty of blood on display, courtesy of Steve Nash's proboscis. San Antonio capitalized on Nash's late-game absence to claim a hard-fought 111-106 victory.
Following the win, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich praised point-guard Tony Parker, who played through his head-on collision with Nash to score 32 points and hand out 8 assists. "At his young age, he's become a wise competitor," said Popovich on Spurs.com. "He's been a competitor since we got him at 19. He's gained some wisdom playing these last five years, and in games it shows. This last season and into the playoffs he's made better choices, moves the basketball better and feels confident enough to score when it's available to him. He makes good decisions basically."
"We're pretty adaptable," added forward Tim Duncan who scored 33 points of his own to go with 16 rebounds. "We'd rather play in the 90s or 80s, that's our type of game. But we've got a lot of guys that are shooting well, we're moving the ball well and the points are going up on the board. But we definitely want to keep the Suns under 100 points."
Two years ago the Spurs met the Suns in the Western Conference Finals, where San Antonio similarly stole Game 1 on the road. Back then, the Spurs went on to take the series in five games, and Suns coach Mike D'Antoni was somewhat prophetic as he voiced his frustrations after Game 1. "That's why they win Championships," he told Spurs.com. "It always comes down to about five or six plays that I just didn't think we competed hard enough on those plays. You are not going to beat a team like San Antonio unless you do."
D'Antoni sounded equally flustered on Sunday afternoon, although Nash showed plenty of heart in defeat. The Spurs' gritty victory, coupled with the return of Big Shot Rob, have many Spurs fans thinking river parade but it's way too early to start counting the Suns out. Phoenix still has All-Stars Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion, and NBA Sixth Man of the Year Leandro Barbosa, who is almost as fearless as Tony Parker. The Suns also realize that Nash's bad back can't support the high expectations of their franchise for too many more seasons and they must respond now.
"I think we have to be a little hungrier," said Nash after Sunday's game from behind a bandaged nose. "I think some of us just didn't have the fire it takes to be a world championship team. And that's not giving yourself a chance. I think we have to play a little harder, be a little more desperate and that was the difference in the game: they just made a couple more shots."
If Parker continues to match Nash, Duncan plays like Duncan, and the Spurs bench keeps producing, the Suns could be facing another frustrating series. This matchup is already shaping up to be a classic and if it does come down to heart, the Spurs still have Manu Ginobili waiting in the wings.