I told you the Phoenix Suns could play a slowed-down, inside game and hang with the San Antonio Spurs, didn't I?
I didn't? Well, I think you're misreading what I said. What I meant to say was -- Hey! Look over there! [Sound of retreating footsteps ...]
The Suns rallied from five points down with 2:32 to play in San Antonio Monday and salvaged their season, beating the Spurs 104-98. The Suns outscored the Spurs 12-1 in that final run, which allowed them to tie their Western Conference semifinal series 2-2. Without that rally, the Spurs would have had a 3-1 lead.
That's the lead the Cleveland Cavaliers have over the New Jersey Nets following their 87-85 road win Monday. And Cleveland has a bigger advantage than the formidable edge the Spurs would have had if they had been able to close out the Suns for a 3-1 lead: The Cavs need one win, and they get two chances in the next three games, if necessary, to do it at home, where they've won seven straight dating to the regular season.
History will record that the Suns stepped up on defense down that stretch, and they did, but the Spurs contributed by pretty much going down the tubes, missing the shots a good but not great defense did give them.
On the Spurs first possession of that fateful final sequence, after a Steve Nash basket had made it 97-94 San Antonio, the Suns played tough defense, backing off of Bruce Bowen because he was -- inexplicably -- not standing on one of the two spots on the floor where he can contribute to the offense, in either corner.
Manu Ginobili drove the lane and was forced to take an awkward shot in traffic. No good, rebound Shawn Marion, who ended up scoring on the other end. 97-96.
Phoenix then played solid defense again, Marion double-teaming Tim Duncan, who tried a fadeaway jumper. It's a shot Duncan routinely makes, even contested, but contesting it is all you can do, and Duncan missed. Amare Stoudemire's layup gave the Suns the lead.
On the next two Spurs possessions, though, it was poor shooting, not good defense, that kept San Antonio off the scoreboard. Michael Finley came off a screen, took a pass from Ginobili and missed a wide-open 10-footer. Then, after Nash's behind-the-back pass set up Stoudemire for a basket and a 100-97 lead, Ginobili got to the rim against Raja Bell and simply missed a bunny, a finger roll with about 24 seconds left. That was essentially the game.
But next came the play everyone will remember from Game 4, and it may be the most important play of Game 5. Nash was dribbling upcourt when Robert Horry, needing to commit a foul to send the Suns, up three with the shot clock turned off, to the line, body-checked him into the padded front of the scorer's table.
Bell got up in Horry's face, some shoving ensued, and Stoudemire left the Suns' bench briefly before being pulled back by an assistant coach.
Horry was ejected for a flagrant foul. Bell got a technical. Horry could face a suspension for Game 5, as could Stoudemire, because leaving the bench is supposed to earn a player an automatic suspension.
Stoudemire said after the game that he was just headed to the scorer's table, but replays show pretty clearly that that wasn't the case. As soon as Nash is decked, Stoudemire bolts toward him. Nobody pounces to the scorer's table like that except actors in movies who have just delivered the line, "I can do it, coach!"
The NBA let Bowen off the hook for his knee to Nash's 'nads, and I'd be surprised and disappointed if both Horry and Stoudemire didn't avoid suspension too. Playoff series should not be decided by league disciplinary officers.
Bowen is often called the dirtiest player in the game because of his bag of tricks, but Horry's play was dirtier than anything Bowen does. At least Bowen's various kicks and clips and undercuts are performed in the service of playing defense. Horry's clothesline of Nash served no purpose other than to injure. You don't need to send a guy into the second row to commit an intentional foul.
In fact, I wonder why Horry didn't try to draw a charge with Nash steaming upcourt. Step in front of him. He'd probably have been called for a block, which would have been fine, since Horry was trying to commit a foul anyway. But foul calls being fairly random, it might have gone the other way for a turnover. Why not try?
What "message" could Horry have been sending to Nash with the hard foul? That this is going to be a tough, physical series? Check Nash's nose. He has known that since Game 1.
I'm not convinced the Suns can keep up the defensive intensity and grit they showed in Game 4, but they've certainly made the best series of the playoffs very interesting by sending it to Phoenix even. Win a couple of home games and it's on to the conference finals, where the Utah Jazz, needing one win in three possible games against the Golden State Warriors starting Tuesday, likely await.
The Jazz are a rough-and-tumble bunch too. But they're not nearly as good as the Spurs.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Are artificial limbs fair? [PERMALINK]
Several readers have passed along a fascinating piece by Jeré Longman in Tuesday's New York Times about a sprinter with prosthetic legs who hopes to qualify for the Olympics.
Not the Paralympics, where 20-year-old South African Oscar Pistorius won a gold medal in the 200 meters in 2004. The Olympics, the ones in Beijing next year.
Pistorius, who had his lower legs amputated in infancy, is awaiting a final ruling from the IAAF, the international track and field ruling body, which seems to be leaning against letting him compete based on existing rules against technological aids such as springs and wheels. The International Olympic Committee could have a say in the matter if it chooses.
The question for the moment is whether Pistorius' J-shaped artificial limbs give him an unfair competitive advantage over athletes using their natural legs. He isn't fast enough yet to qualify for the Olympics as a sprinter, but he could be in the mix for a spot on a relay team, and Longman reports that Pistorius has improved his times by seconds in the past few years. Elite runners with their own limbs improve their times by hundredths of seconds at similar stages of their careers.
If a competitive advantage can't be shown, is it just discrimination to not let Pistorius compete? A medical-school professor quoted in Longman's article wonders if the track body simply doesn't want to see a disabled man line up against an able-bodied man at the Olympics for aesthetic reasons.
But if artificial limbs are allowed, it isn't difficult to imagine a future in which they've improved to the point where they clearly offer an advantage and ambitious athletes are forced to consider elective amputation. It sounds like a science fiction novel, and not a very good one. Just like laser-eye surgery would have sounded if you'd talked about it in 1965 or so.
That's the larger question here: What to do at that seemingly inevitable point in history when technology -- not potentially damaging drugs, but good old-fashioned engineering and ingenuity -- definitely makes it possible for athletes to run faster, jump higher and be stronger.
"We cannot accept something that provides advantages," IAAF official Elio Locatelli told the Times. "It affects the purity of sport. Next will be another device where people can fly with something on their back."
That would be an easy call. No flying devices. But what happens when that device that can make a person fly, metaphorically speaking -- that is, run 100 meters in eight seconds, let's say -- isn't strapped to the athlete's back, it's genetically engineered before the kid's born?
These are the types of questions sports will be wrestling with in the coming decades. They're going to make our arguments about performance-enhancing drugs seem primitive, like debates about where the sun goes when it ducks behind the hills every night.
I bet the IAAF won't allow Pistorius to compete. That'll just be tabling the issue.
Previous column: How to deal with Bruce Bowen
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -