Spurs 101, Suns 95

-- The San Antonio Spurs are excited to be going back to the NBA Finals.

They're even happier about not having to see Amare Stoudemire, Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns until next season.

Tim Duncan had 31 points and 15 rebounds and the Spurs' defense keyed a game-changing 18-4 third-quarter run that gave them enough of a cushion to hold off Stoudemire and the Suns 101-95 on Wednesday night to end the Western Conference finals in five games.

Duncan's aching ankles and Manu Ginobili's bumps and bruises have a week to heal while San Antonio waits to find out whether it will next face Miami or Detroit. The Heat and Pistons are tied 2-2 with Game 5 on Thursday night in Miami. The final round will start June 9, and the Spurs, who won it all in 1999 and 2003, will be the home team regardless.

Although San Antonio won all three road games this series, it was never easy. Every game was within six points in the final minutes and most were closer than that thanks to Stoudemire averaging 37 points and Nash showing why he was the league's MVP.

"I am thrilled we don't have to play them again," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said.

"We're just ecstatic to get out of this series," added Duncan.

Proving this wasn't the typical lip service winners offer losers, consider what two-time MVP Duncan said to the 22-year-old Stoudemire when they embraced after the buzzer.

"I just told him we had a great series and that I have no doubt we'll be back in this situation in the years to come," Duncan said.

Stoudemire scored 17 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter, several on the powerful slam dunks that have become his calling card, helping Phoenix trim a 13-point deficit to three with 2 minutes 45 seconds left.

Stoudemire finished the series with the highest scoring average for a conference finals first-timer, breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 35-year-old record by 2.8 points per game. His five straight 30-point games broke his own club playoff record and it made him the first Suns player to do that in any five games since Charles Barkley in March 1993.

"I grew a lot in this series," Stoudemire said.

Phoenix came into this season never expecting to still be playing in June after winning 29 games in 2003-04. But with an energetic offense, the Suns ran off the most points and most wins in the NBA and charged through the first two rounds. This was only the second time in 15 postseason games they failed to score 100 points, the other also against the Spurs.

Then again, that's what San Antonio does. This was the second straight season the Spurs allowed the fewest points in the NBA.

Everything starts with Duncan, though, and he took the Game 4 loss personally. After scoring just 15 points and missing nine free throws, he vowed to make up for it -- and did, hitting six of his first seven shots and putting back the one he missed. He also had a tip-in with 2:12 left that made it 95-90, beginning the Spurs' closing push.

"I knew I'd put together a better performance than I did last time," he said. "I came in here to rectify that, whatever that may be. I wanted to give our team a chance to win and not be a hindrance."

With another loss, San Antonio would have been headed home for Game 6 with the Suns halfway to pulling off a comeback that is unprecedented in NBA history, but fresh in the minds of sports fans after the Boston Red Sox did it last October.

Phoenix was off to a good start, leading by one at halftime, and still up 52-51 a few possessions into the third quarter.

Then a dunk by Robert Horry gave the Spurs the lead. It also began a 6:30 stretch that ended with them up 69-56.

Along the way, the Suns had four turnovers (traveling by Nash, two lost balls by Stoudemire and a 24-second violation), Nash missed three shots, Stoudemire missed one and the flourish ended with Joe Johnson getting blocked twice.

The Spurs' Tim Duncan (31 points, 15 rebounds) goes up to block the shot of the Suns' Amare Stoudemire (42 points). San Antonio eliminated Phoenix, 4-1.Steve Nash (21 points) helped the Suns to the best record in the regular season, but the league's best offense couldn't beat the NBA's best defense.