A left-handed guard led his team to victory in Game 3 of the Spurs-Suns Western Conference semifinal series Friday night.
Unfortunately for the Spurs, he wasn’t named Manu Ginobili.
Phoenix went up 3-0 in the series with a 110-96 victory at the AT&T Center because Suns backup point guard Goran Dragic scored 23 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter.
“I have a lot of confidence in my game and this team,” said Dragic, who is from Ljubljana, Slovenia. “I feel great this year and everyone is confident in me. I feel great on the court.”
Dragic looked so confident once he got going that the rim must have appeared like it was six feet in circumference. His 23-point outburst in the fourth period set a playoff record for a Spurs opponent, shattering the mark of 17 set by Charles Barkley 17 years ago.
“Steve who?” Suns coach Alvin Gentry joked at the beginning of his postgame remarks to reporters.
He was referring, of course, to future Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash, who had the luxury of watching most of Dragic’s career quarter from the bench.
Playing with a small lineup in the fourth period, the Suns simply were too quick and athletic for the Spurs.
Perimeter defense has been a problem for the Spurs throughout the season, and that’s a fatal flaw against a team that spreads out the floor as well as the Suns.
“They killed us,” Ginobili said. “They decided to attack the rim, penetrating, kicking out and making contested 3-pointers. They were unbelievable. They picked us apart and it seemed there was no way to stop them whether it was their 3-point shooting or penetration. It was embarrassing.”
Ginobili canned four 3-pointers and led all scorers with 27 points, but on this night, he was the second-best left-hander on the floor.
The Suns can end the series when the teams return to the AT&T Center on Sunday night.
The Spurs are a proud team and will fight to avoid a sweep, but Phoenix is simply too good this time. Any resemblance between the Suns teams that were booted out of the playoffs by the Spurs four consecutive times since 2003 and this year’s club is purely coincidental.
Phoenix is on the verge of a sweep because its bench has stepped up in a big way. In Game 2, Jared Dudley and Channing Frye played key roles for the Suns.
On Friday night, Dragic and Leandro Barbosa, who fnished with 13 points and nailed two 3-pointers, did the same at crunch time.
While things look bleak for the Spurs, Tim Duncan said they won't run up the white flag.
“We’re going to do what we have to do,” Duncan said.
Duncan finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds.
Phoenix won despite getting only seven points from Amar’e Stoudemire, who sat on the bench during the entire fourth quarter. Nash, who finished with 16 points, was in the game for only 3:17 in the period.
“It might extend Steve’s career five or six years if Dragic keeps playing like that,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
Jason Richardson, who scored 21 points, also watched all of the fourth quarter from the bench.
Barbosa was another Suns player who hurt the Spurs in the fourth quarter, hitting 3 of 4 shots, including a 3-pointer.
But the Sun of the hour was Dragic, who is in his second season with Phoenix.
And here’s a little something to ponder until Game 4: The Spurs selected Dragic in the second round of the 2008 draft, but traded his rights to the Suns in a draft-day deal in exchange for the draft rights to Malik Hairston and a 2009 second-round pick.
The Spurs used the pick to take DeJuan Blair.
Dragic was virtually unstoppable in the final period, hitting 9 of11 shots, including all four of his attempts from the 3-point line.
“I don’t know how many guys in the history of the game that have had a quarter in the fourth quarter of the playoffs,” Nash said. “It was pretty remarkable. I am incredibly proud of him.
“It was a pleasure to watch and be a part of, not only for him but for our franchise. It was a great moment. To play as he did, it’s something that I will remember for a long time.”
That Dragic was in one of those zones athletes talk about became painfully obvious to the Spurs when he extended the Suns’ lead to 91-82 with a four-point play with 6:57 left.
Ginobili had just cut Phoenix’s lead to 87-82 with a layup when Dragic countered with a 3-pointer he converted despite getting fouled by George Hill. He then coolly hit the free throw.
“I was just going for a foul against George Hill,” Dragic said. “I didn’t expect the shot to fall. I was just going for the foul. After that shot, the rim was huge.”
Told by Gentry to be more aggressive, Dragic made the Spurs look like the Washington Generals, the team that always look defenseless against the Harlem Globetrotters, with his shooting and up-and-under moves when he got to the rim.
“During halftime I was talking with Coach Gentry and he told me I have to be more aggressive and drive the lane,” Dragic said.
“When I came back out on the court, I just did what he told me. And when I hit the 3-point shot with the foul, I knew I was being aggressive.”
The Suns dominated the fourth quarter, outscoring the Spurs 39-24 while converting 71.4 percent of their shots from the field.
Duncan credited Phoenix for exploiting the Spurs’ defense by going with a small lineup in the fourth period.
“It was a thing effective for them,” he said. “They used their pick-and-rolls to get the matchup they wanted, as they got me on top of the key as I tried to do my best to contest the shots. They didn’t miss any.”
The Spurs opened the game with a punch, leading 28-19 after one quarter and extending the advantage to 18 points (39-21) on a jumper by Tony Parker, who started for the first time since breaking a bone in his shooting hand on March 6, with 8:21 left.
But the Suns hung tough and trailed by only six, 50-44, at the half.
The Spurs should have had a bigger cushion, but they missed nine of17 free throws, including seven in a row, in the first half.
Parker hurt a shoulder after taking a flagrant foul by Frye in the first half. He was X-rayed after the game and is expected to undergo an MRI on Monday.
From the looks of things Friday night, Parker very well could be on vacation by then.