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Short-Handed Suns Falter Late

Manu Ginobli
Manu Ginobli scores a game-high 26 points, helping to turn the tide in the Spurs' favor. (Ross D. Franklin - AP)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007; 2:30 AM

PHOENIX, May 16 -- Robert Horry's left forearm sent Steve Nash crashing into a scorer's table, splashing to the ground, limbs dangling.

Nash felt the pain of the physical blow, but the Phoenix Suns seemingly suffered a greater jolt to their championship aspirations after Amare Stoudemire and left the bench to check on their fallen comrade.

The one-game suspensions Stoudemire, the all-NBA first-team center, and Diaw received the next day far outweighed the two-game suspension for Horry, and left the Suns at a decided disadvantage heading into a pivotal Game 5 Western Conference semifinal on Wednesday night at US Airways Center.

Suns Manager Partner Robert Sarver went so far to say the "dirty team" was "rewarded."

Unable to build off of the momentum of a Game 4 victory that Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni called "the biggest game as coaches that we've ever won together," the short-handed Suns rode the energy of their enraged fans, an early charge from Shawn Marion, the consistent defense of Kurt Thomas and dashes of Nash to build a 16-point first-half lead. But Manu Ginobili crushed the Suns' hopes of an upset win, scoring a game-high 26 points, and Bruce Bowen provided a back-breaking three-pointer as the Spurs pulled out an 88-85 victory.

The Spurs have a commanding 3-2 lead in this hotly contested best-of-seven series, with an opportunity to close it out in San Antonio on Friday.

"It was unbelievable," said Spurs forward Tim Duncan, who finished with 21 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots. "It was a great effort by both teams."

The Suns led by eight with 5 minutes, 42 seconds remaining, but the Spurs slowly chipped away until they finally tied the game at 81 when Duncan nailed two free throws with just under two minutes remaining.

Bowen, the source of much of the fans' ire last night, then drilled a go-ahead three-pointer from the right corner to give San Antonio an 84-81 lead with 36.3 seconds remaining -- the Spurs' first lead since 11-10.

"It's the shot we want from him," Duncan said of Bowen. "It's the shot he loves to take."

The Suns faltered on their possessions down the stretch and a once fired up sellout crowd walked out in silence. "We played about as hard as we can play," D'Antoni said. "It would have been bitter no matter what. We gave it our all. They spilled their guts out. Again, I'll feel sorry later on. Right now, we have some work to do. We can beat those guys. We've shown it. We've done it. Last time we were down in San Antonio, if I'm not mistaken, we won."

Marion led the Suns with 24 points and 17 rebounds and guarded nearly every Spurs player, from Tony Parker to Duncan.

Thomas (15 points, 12 rebounds) had played Duncan admirably, helping hold the all-NBA forward to just one field goal attempt in the final 21 minutes. Thomas gave the Suns a 77-69 lead when he took a pass from Nash, rolled in a layup and completed a three-point play after drawing a foul. But after Ginobili brought the Spurs back within two, D'Antoni sat Thomas the final three minutes in hopes that his team could outscore the Spurs.

"Unbelievable defense," D'Antoni said. "I can't believe I'm saying that -- but our offense couldn't make enough shots. We just didn't have enough juice to get over the hump."

Nash (19 points, 12 assists) played 46 minutes and was gassed in the closing seconds, as he forced two three-pointers in the final 24 seconds. "I think we're all disappointed," Nash said. "We feel like we didn't take advantage of an opportunity. We kind of ran out of ideas, and also we maybe got outhustled at times, and that really hurt us."

So did Ginobili.

With the Suns focused on limiting Tim Duncan, Ginobli made his presence felt as he did in Game 3. After starting the game 2-of-7 from the floor, Ginobili scored 15 of his game-high 26 points in the fourth quarter, "I made a couple of shots and everything opened up for me," Ginobili said. "Everybody was so excited and [the Suns] were so pumped up, they were like a hurt animal. They were upset and playing with a lot of passion . . .We made it though a lot of adversity and we responded. I am really proud of what we have done today."

Since he couldn't score in the final period, Duncan delivered on the defensive end, recording three blocked shots.

The Suns had been in this position in each of the past three postseasons. Before the game, D'Antoni spoke of "climbing this mountain" but he knows that his team has always met a point at which the peak was too steep -- be it Joe Johnson's eye injury which forced him to miss most of the conference finals two years ago; or starting last season without Stoudemire and ending the season without Stoudemire, Kurt Thomas and Raja Bell because of injuries.

Outside the arena, fans sold T-shirts that read "Free Amare" and "Stu [Stinks]," for NBA Vice President of Basketball Operations Stu Jackson, who handed down the suspensions on Tuesday. When asked if he got a "Stu" T-shirt, D'Antoni joked, "Oh, you mean my shipment finally came in?"

While defending the league's decision, Commissioner David Stern partially blamed the Suns assistant coaches for failing to hold back the players on Monday night after Nash hit the ground.

"I hate that, because we all know the rules. We talk about it and they tried to do that. You try to be robotic on the sidelines and not let your emotions get into it, but I really don't want to be around a bunch of guys who can coldly calculate, 'Steve is flying through the air; the hell with him; players, you've got to stay back.' " D'Antoni said before the game. "That's just not a natural reaction to be machine-like . . . As soon as we realized what was happening, we got them all back and nothing happened," he said. "Instead of being upset with the coaches or the players, I'm kind of proud of them, to be honest."

Stoudemire and Diaw will return on Friday. "We've got plenty left," Marion said. "We have two guys coming back fresh and hopefully that's enough for us to get out there and get that one and bring it back home [for Game 7]."

Horry won't be able to play until then -- unless the Spurs are preparing for the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Finals.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company