- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 29, 2005

SAN ANTONIO — This was the San Antonio Spurs everyone expects, the guys in black smothering the fun out of any offense, even the most high-powered.

Eliminating the fast break, denying the paint and running at 3-point shooters, Tim Duncan and the Spurs dismantled everything the Phoenix Suns tried for most of Game3 of the Western Conference finals, turning their superb defense into a 102-92 victory last night that puts them on the brink of reaching the championship round.

San Antonio held Phoenix under 106 points for the first time this postseason, mainly by giving up just 39 first-half points, including a measly 10 in the second quarter. The Suns finally made a charge in the fourth quarter, getting within six twice in the final minute, but the Spurs fought it off with Duncan and Manu Ginobili going 6-for-6 from the foul line.

The Spurs lead 3-0, and no team ever has rallied from that deficit to win a series in the NBA playoffs. Phoenix seems pretty unlikely to change it; if the young Suns weren’t rattled by getting outscored twice at home by defense-oriented San Antonio, then this throttling had to leave them shaking their heads.

Game4 is tomorrow night. The Suns can send the series back to Phoenix with a win, while a San Antonio victory would put the Spurs into the NBA Finals for the second time in three years and third time in seven.

The Spurs won both times they were there, beating the New York Knicks in 1999 and the New Jersey Nets in 2003.

Duncan led San Antonio with 33 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks. A mediocre foul shooter most of his career, he was perfect on 15 attempts and hit several tough baskets in the closing minutes to help hold off Phoenix’s charge. An appreciative crowd responded by standing and chanting “M-V-P!” during his final four free throws.

Tony Parker had 18 points and seven assists and Ginobili had 18 points and seven rebounds, including the final one, which he cradled while time ran out on San Antonio’s fifth straight victory and 44th in 48 home games this season.

Amare Stoudemire led the Suns with 34 points, but it was his lowest output in seven games this season against the Spurs. He scored 16 in the fourth quarter, helping Phoenix make sure it went down fighting.

Joe Johnson was solid in his first game since breaking a bone near his left eye May11, hitting his first two shots and scoring 15 points. He was 6-for-14, including 2-for-3 on 3-pointers, so the mask he wore must not have bothered him much.

Johnson’s return was supposed to make Steve Nash more effective, but that was hardly the case.

Nash had just one assist through three quarters, frustrated by the way San Antonio packed the lane and detonated their pick-and-roll. He had 20 points, three assists and a whopping six turnovers — shattering his playoff-record streak of four straight games with 25 points and 10 assists.

His exasperation was evident with 4:04 left, when he dribbled into the lane, ran into three Spurs and looked for help. None of his teammates were open and he wound up traveling, leading to a stream of expletives and the exasperated look he wore all night.

Feeding off the energy of their home crowd, the Spurs’ active hands and feet forced Phoenix into its lowest-scoring first half of the season. The 10 points in the second quarter matched its worst period.

The Spurs opened a window for a Suns rally by failing to make a basket for nearly the first seven minutes of the second quarter. But Phoenix missed its first six shots of the period and had trimmed only three points off the lead when San Antonio snapped out of its funk.

Ginobili ended the drought by turning a steal into an uncontested dunk and the Spurs were off on a 13-2 run that stretched their halftime lead to 17. The Suns missed their final seven shots going into the half.

Notes — Phoenix’s streak of triple-digit playoff games ended at 12. It was the longest since the Boston Celtics had 22 in a row in 1987. … The Suns have trailed by at least nine after the first quarter of every game. … Johnson’s third shot missed, but San Antonio’s Brent Barry knocked it in off the glass while trying to rebound it. … Spurs forward Robert Horry played his 190th postseason game, tying Magic Johnson for fifth place. With four more games, he’ll take over third place.

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