The San Antonio Spurs' reunion tour will continue in the Western Conference Semifinals with a matchup against the Phoenix Suns. Having already dismissed the Dallas Mavericks, the Spurs now face another familiar postseason foe. San Antonio has faced either the Mavericks or the Suns in every postseason dating back to 2005, but while the Spurs had history to vanquish in the first round, they have dominated the matchup with Phoenix, knocking the Suns out of the playoffs three times in a four-year span.
While on paper Phoenix got a break when San Antonio became the first No. 7 seed to win a series since the first round expanded to seven games in 2003, you can excuse the Suns for not feeling so lucky. The Spurs are a very good team who boast the Western Conference's second-best point differential, and they backed up their gaudy statistics in beating Dallas. Phoenix's differential isn't far behind, however, and the Suns did some very good things in a six-game series win over Portland.
WHEN PHOENIX HAS THE BALL
Pace: 94.0 possessions per 48 minutes (4th NBA) Regular Season, 86.6 (11th) Playoffs
Phoenix Offensive Rating: 117.5 points per 100 possessions (1st NBA) Regular Season, 118.2 (1st) Playoffs
San Antonio Defensive Rating: 106.2 points per 100 possessions (9th NBA) Regular Season, 106.7 (6th) Playoffs
The happiest Phoenix player about this matchup has to be Amar'e Stoudemire. After seeing extra defensive attention from the Trail Blazers, who sought to take his scoring off the pick-and-roll away, Stoudemire can expect a different defensive philosophy from San Antonio. Dating back to the 2005 Western Conference Finals, Popovich has generally believed in conceding paint scores to Stoudemire in favor of taking away the Suns' shooters. Indeed, Stoudemire averaged 32.7 points in three regular-season matchups, his best average against any opponent.
On paper, giving up those twos is supposed to take away threes, but Phoenix was able to shoot nearly 50 percent from downtown in the three games as well. Though the Spurs did limit the Suns' attempts, that helps explain why the Phoenix offense sizzled to the tune of a 123.7 Offensive Rating in winning the season series 2-1. As the Suns demonstrated when the Blazers helped out down low, they have no shortage of shooters. Jason Richardson was brilliant against Portland, making catch-and-shoot jumpers look like layups and hitting some more difficult shots as well. Jared Dudley got going in the last two games and added 10 threes off the bench. Phoenix will need a better effort, however, from Channing Frye, who was inaccurate from long distance in the first round.
Frankly, part of the reason the philosophy was less successful this season is the Spurs no longer boast the same kind of defensive personnel. San Antonio's help defense is less effective without any other 7-footers to flank Tim Duncan, especially when either DeJuan Blair or Matt Bonner is on the floor. The Spurs did do a good job of stopping the Mavericks, getting strong wing defensive efforts on Caron Butler and Shawn Marion.
The biggest cause for hope for San Antonio defensively in this series is that Steve Nash will not be 100 percent. Nash suffered a hip-socket impingement during the series with the Blazers that severely limited him in Game Six, forcing him into uncharacteristic bad decisions. Nash surely benefited from the relatively lengthy break between series, but he could be bothered again during this series. Nash proved difficult for the Spurs to contain in the regular season, averaging 20.3 points and 12.0 assists. It is worth noting, however, the George Hill only started one of those three games, and that start came at shooting guard. The matchup will be a little different with Hill opening games defending Nash, where he has advantages in terms of length and size.
One disappointment for Phoenix in the opening round was the team's bench. As individuals, several players played well, including Dudley. Alvin Gentry's rotation that frequently puts five reserves on the floor together was not effective, however, as the Blazers often made up ground against the Suns bench. Gentry may want to adjust and keep a starter on the floor at all times if the trend continues.
WHEN SAN ANTONIO HAS THE BALL
Pace: 90.3 possessions per 48 minutes (20th NBA) Regular Season, 86.8 (10th) Playoffs
San Antonio Offensive Rating: 111.7 points per 100 possessions (9th NBA), 107.7 (9th) Playoffs
Phoenix Defensive Rating: 111.6 points per 100 possessions (19th NBA) Regular Season, 108.5 (10th) Playoffs
This end of the floor may well be where this series is won or lost. Was Phoenix's improvement on defense during the series with Portland legitimate, or simply a function of Brandon Roy's injury? I tend to suspect more the former than the latter, but whether that is the case will go a long way toward determining the outcome of this series.
The biggest development for the Spurs' offense in the opening round was the addition of Hill to the team's "big three" of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Hill's 29-point outburst in Game Four was a game- and series-changer, and he averaged 19.5 points on better than 50 percent shooting over the last four games of the series after shaking off the effects of a sprained ankle suffered in the regular-season finale.
Hill's emergence means the only place the Suns can hide Nash defensively is on the far bigger Richard Jefferson, and even that option can be taken away if Popovich finishes games with a three-guard lineup of Duncan, Ginobili and Hill, all of them dangerous creating off the dribble. Ginobili slumped in Games Three-Five of the series against Dallas after he broke his nose, but he came back to play a key role in staving off the Mavericks' comeback attempt in Game Six.
Because San Antonio's players will be tough to stop off the dribble, and because of Duncan's ability in the post, the Suns will need their big men to defend well in this series. The potential return of Robin Lopez from a bulging disc in his lower back would be helpful there, even though Jarron Collins is the superior post defender. Collins' limitations on the glass and on offense make it difficult to play him extended minutes. Phoenix can trust Lopez enough to keep him on the floor if he is up to it. There's an outside chance Lopez could play in Game One, though he is more likely to be available when the series shifts to the AT&T Center.
According to My Synergy Sports, the Suns were surprisingly effective at defending the post, allowing opponents 0.84 points per post-up possession, good for sixth in the league. Duncan still had success against Phoenix, however, averaging 23.0 points on 61.7 percent shooting in head-to-head meetings.
The history between these two teams makes for a fun storyline entering the series, but should the Spurs' past playoff success tell us anything about the outcome? I suspect not. Both teams have made significant personnel changes even since 2008, when they last met and Shaquille O'Neal battled Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto in the post. San Antonio is no longer the kind of elite defensive team that once made this a battle of elite units, though Phoenix remains as good as ever on offense.
This series is close enough that I would probably be inclined to pick whichever team had home-court advantage. Since that's the Suns, I like them to win this series, though it could easily go the distance and is close to a coin flip.
Phoenix in 7
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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