Published May 06, 2010
PHOENIX – Make that two body blows the Phoenix Suns delivered Wednesday -- one to Arizona lawmakers, the other to their Texas tormentors.
This was a culture-shifting NBA playoff game.
On the political front, Phoenix wore "Los Suns" jerseys to celebrate Cinco de Mayo but also to express discontent with Arizona's new immigration law.
"A flawed state law," managing partner Robert Sarver called it. During the game, Rev. Al Sharpton wore the jersey for a downtown march and afterward Suns star Steve Nash expressed the team's sentiments: "It's important we stand up sometimes for what we believe. Our team stood up."
On the sporting front, Los Suns spanked the San Antonio Spurs, the team that has eliminated them from the postseason four of their last five appearances. Their 110-102 victory gave them a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference semifinals, the first time they have enjoyed that margin in the Tim Duncan era.
How big was this win? "It was a great win for us," said Suns coach Alvin Gentry. "It was about as gritty a win as we've had since I've been around here."
He didn't want to talk about the political edge brought to this game before hand. "It's time to move on," he said. "Our concentration is on San Antonio. It's a monumental task."
A sign seen before tip-off at U.S. Airways Center: "Play ball, not politics."
The Suns took the cue, notably their 10-deep bench and a 37-year-old defender who will never be called Grant (Over The) Hill.
Depth and defense -- that is, the lack thereof -- is what soured Suns general manager Steve Kerr on former coach Mike D'Antoni, who took his run-and-gun offense to the New York Knicks.
But those traits are precisely what have transformed these Suns into a title contender under Gentry. Jared Dudley, an all-heart, no-lift journeyman, and three-point specialist Channing Frye sparked the second unit, which collected 31 points and 20 rebounds, nine offensive.
Dudley wielded his hammer in the second quarter with four of his offensive boards and eight of his 11 points to help the Suns turn an 11-point deficit dug by 33 percent shooting into a halftime tie at 51.
Nash, a two-time MVP, paid Dudley the ultimate compliment. "He was my player of the game. He made some huge plays for us. Our first unit struggled a little bit and then there was the turning point where he got about three offensive rebounds, a steal and did a bunch of things that more than anything gave us energy and confidence and changed the game."
"A monster," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called Dudley. "He was committed to the boards and it was infectious."
So were Frye's threes. He nailed five of six, making all three he took in the second half as the Suns pulled away in the fourth quarter to win despite being outshot from the field and outscored in fast-break points by the Spurs.
That says a lot about this team, what Gentry calls "a little finesse team that plays hard."
That also is a perfect way to describe Hill. He's aging like Popovich's wine -- getting better by the game. Why count birthdays when you can count on Hill for big plays in crunch time (eight of his 18 points came in the fourth quarter) and defense from start to finish?
Even Suns fans once in love with D'Antoni's offense have taken to chanting "De-fense! De-fense!" during games. Hill shut down Andre Miller in the Suns' first-round victory against the Portland Trail Blazers and cooled off Manu Ginobili in Game 2.
The Spurs' whirlwind star hit nine of 20 shots for 27 points in Game 1, but, largely defended by Hill, missed six of eight and had 11 points Wednesday.
"Grant Hill never ceases to amaze me," said Gentry. "Here's a 37-year-old guy -- he hates me to say that -- here's a guy who has been in the league for a long, long time and he just does a good job. Everything we ask him to do, every night we ask him to do something and he never complains."
The tribute continued.
"We tell him to go out and he's always on the best perimeter player and he never complains, just plays. I've been the luckiest guy in the world to be able to coach him for as long as I have and he'll forever be my favorite player. He really will."
The Suns take a 2-0 lead to San Antonio, but only held serve at home. This series isn't over by any means. Not against the pedigree of the four-time champion Spurs.
"We know they're not going away," said Nash. "Even if they are frustrated, they're going to come out and give us a heck of a time in Games 3 and 4. We haven't done anything but hold home court. We know what they are made of."
The Spurs were outhustled on the boards, notably on the offensive glass. But George Hill, a disaster in Game 1, found himself in the fourth quarter and Tony Parker and Duncan had big games.
Parker acknowledged frustration afterward. "I thought we played pretty well but we had that lead and we didn't take advantage."
The Suns took advantage -- on two fronts. Happy Cinco de Mayo.