What should the Spurs do now?
Sometimes the other team is just better, no matter how hard you try to stave off defeat.
The Spurs entered the Western Conference semifinals feeling confident after beating No. 2 seed Dallas, but they simply didn’t have enough game to stay with a Phoenix Suns team that completed a sweep of the series with a 107-101 victory Sunday night at the AT&T Center.
“They played better all four games and made shots they had to make and played physical defense,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “We didn’t play as good offensively as them, and we weren’t able to make all of the shots that they made.”
One of the big factors in the Suns’ success throughout the series was their tough pick-and-roll defense against Ginobili, who missed 9 of 11 shots Sunday night and finished with 15 points.
“They really stepped up and were aggressive on defense,” he said. “Their rotations were always there. Hustle was there as well.”
A Spurs season that began with high expectations after the acquisition of Richard Jefferson last summer ended with a loss that mirrored the previous three against the Suns in the series.
Every time it appeared the Spurs were on the verge of taking control, the Suns answered with a big shot.
In the end, the Suns played a lot better than a No. 3 seed and the Spurs, well, they demonstrated why they struggled to make the playoffs as a No. 7 seed.
Still, the Suns were hardly beating their chests after finally vanquishing their nemesis.
“I have so much respect for the Spurs and the way they do things,” Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry said. “We try to pattern our franchise after them. We want to be what they are.”
While the Spurs didn’t go easily, the Suns demonstrated they are a markedly different team than the Phoenix clubs that lost four consecutive playoff series to San Antonio in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2008.
The Suns always have packed a potent offensive punch, but this team has such a good mix of slashers and shooters to go with point guard Steve Nash and forward Amar’e Stoudemire that it presented a matchup nightmare for the Spurs.
“They made it hard for us to guard them for 48 minutes,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “We’d go into the fourth quarter and someone for them would step up. Those are the kind of things that happen with that team.”
The Suns do such a great job of spreading the floor with their shooters that they could give the Lakers a tougher time in the Western Conference finals that some may expect.
Stoudemire and Nash led the Suns with 29 and 20 points, respectively. Nash, called the “head of the snake” by the Spurs, had another stellar game despite finishing the game with six stitches above his right eye.
Nash had to leave the game after taking an inadvertent elbow from Tim Duncan in the third quarter, but returned to play the entire fourth period. He finished the quarter with 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting, including a 3-pointer with 9:07 left that put Phoenix ahead 80-77.
The Suns never trailed after that.
“I got that one three on the break just to see if it could spark anything and help me stay on the floor,” Nash said of his big shot. “I tried to concentrate on setting my feet and making the shot, and fortunately it worked.”
Nash and Stoudemire combined for 22 points in the fourth period, when Nash also dished out fve assists.
The Spurs led 25-19 after one quarter, but Phoenix was ahead 50-47 at the half. The third period ended with the Suns clinging to a 72-71 lead, setting the stage for a quarter that revealed much about both teams.
Phoenix took a 10-point lead, 99-89, on a 3-pointer by Jason Richardson with 2:03 left, but the Spurs kept punching and got to within 103-101 when George Hill completed a four-point play with 26.5 seconds remaining.
After Grant Hill extended the lead to 105-101 with two free throws, Ginobili missed a 3-pointer that looked good until it hit the back rim with 11.9 left. Richardson then added two free throws for the final margin.
Tony Parker, who started at point guard for the second consecutive game, led the Spurs with 22 points. Tim Duncan and George Hill chipped in 17 points apiece.
“It’s a tough one but we have to give credit to Phoenix,” Parker said. “They played great once again and they made a lot of shots and tough threes. We were playing good defense. Our rotation was pretty good, but they just made big shots after big shots.
“Obviously, I’m very sad that we lost, but at the same time, I’m happy for Nash and Stoudemire because every year they played very hard against us, and it never went their way and now this year it went their way.”
In sports, as in life, things have a way of turning around eventually.
But take heart, Spurs fans.
If it’s any consolation after watching your team get swept, just remember that the Spurs at least beat the Dallas Mavericks in the first round when few thought they could.
“The effort was there,” Popovich said, reflecting on how hard his players fought in Game 4. “They did everything we needed them to do. This season was a tough one for us. They made it to the second round of the playoffs. I’m proud of what they did, and that’s that."
Obviously, the Suns exploited some weaknesses that hurt the Spurs throughout the season. The Spurs deserve credit for beating the Mavs despite those deficiencies, but they were exposed badly by the Suns.
It's tough to win a championship without consistent 3-point shooting, which the Spurs sorely lacked this season. The Spurs won championships, in no small part, because such players as Robert Horry, Steve Kerr and Michael Finley stepped up and made big shots at critical moments of a series.
Just as importantly, consistent 3-point shooting stretches a defense and keeps it from packing the paint. It opens up the inside game. How much better do you think Duncan, even at 34 and with sore knees, would be if the Spurs had a consistent long-range threat?
Acquiring a good 3-point shooter has to be a priority for Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford in the offseason. And if they have any hopes of seriously contending for another championship, the Spurs are going to have to get bigger.
As they stand now, they simply don't have the height and length to compete on the boards against the league's best teams.
You will hear the name "Taogo Splitter" a lot in the coming weeks and months. Splitter, a 6-11 center from Brazil who was the Spurs' first-round pick in 2007 and has starred in the Spanish League, could be the team's next outstanding foreign player.
Splitter's contract with his Spanish League team expires this season, but the question sure to loom paramount will be whether he's willing to pass up millions in Europe to play for the rookie-scale salary in the NBA. We'll see.
Contrary to what some people believe, I think Duncan still can be a force next season. But he's going to need help.
At any rate, it should be an interesting offseason for the Silver & Black.