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It was the most quiet of the big three, the man who had been so unassuming all game, that came through in the clutch.
All game, he looked lost, getting in foul trouble and barely registered on the score sheet at the half. But by games end, the Spurs made sure it was in his hands, and he came through.
If anything, Manu Ginobili earned his sixth man award tonight in San Antonio in a series-clinching 92-87 win over the Phoenix Suns.
At halftime, he had scored just two points and three fouls in 11 minutes of play. By games end, he would have only eight, four of those from the charity stripe.
But it was a big eight.
After Boris Diaw cut the Spurs lead to one, Ginobili came up strong. First, after a risky inbounds pass up the middle, he was fouled going for a lay up and hit one of two, giving the Spurs a two-point lead.
Phoenix called a twenty second timeout, advancing the ball to half court – but turned it over on the inbounds pass. Ginobili was fouled and went to the line with the chance to ice it.
He did, hitting both and giving the Spurs a commanding lead of four points and that was the ball game.
But it was far from just him tonight – he got a ton of help from a Phoenix team that collapsed down the stretch and a stellar night from both Tony Parker and Tim Duncan.
The Suns turned the ball over seven times in the fourth quarter and looked panicky down the stretch, forcing shots against a San Antonio defence that kept them outside.
And their big acquisition – Shaquille O’Neal – was a problem all game for the Suns, too. As early as the second quarter, San Antonio went into hack mode, fouling him away from the ball and sending him to the line, where he was far from effective.
He would miss 11 free throws in the game, more then the difference in the outcome. In the second quarter, he missed nine free throws, while San Antonio took a 54-45 lead at the half.
“We wanted to make Shaq work,” said Spurs forward Kurt Thomas at the half.
However, when Shaq sat for most of the third, Phoenix roared back, going on a 13-4 run that gave then a lead of five late in the third.
But this was a strategy that almost backfired for the Spurs. Going into the fourth quarter, they had three players with four fouls, and another two with three. And when Shaq entered the game again in the fourth, their strategy was much less effective, as he started hitting more of his free throws. Soon, he showed glimpses of his old self, driving to the basket over Duncan and getting the foul.
However, a glimpse was all the Suns would get.
As effective as Ginobili was late, Tony Parker was early. In the first half, he had 20 points, five assists and was a perfect 8/8 from the line. He finished with 31 points, eight assists and a number of clutch shots, including two late daggers to keep San Antonio in front.
“We just treated it like a game seven,” he said after the game.
Indeed they did, with a defence that stifled Phoenix’s inside game and ran down the clock. Two-time MVP Tim Duncan was a monster throughout, finishing with 29 points and17 rebounds in 41 minutes of play.
But the other two-time MVP was ineffective at best. Steve Nash shot a dismal four of 16 and didn’t register an assist until late in the third quarter. He finished with just 11 points, three assists and three turnovers, hardly his kind of stat line.
Even before this game, but especially as it finished, rumours were flying about the Suns. Is this the last game for head coach Mike D’Antoni? Are the missed free throws and riding the bench the last memory we will have of the force formerly known as the Diesel? And what of Nash? He looked ineffective all game and was completely outplayed by Parker.
At least one of them has a kernel of truth: Sports Illustrated is reporting today that D’Antoni will not be back next year.
Perhaps the only bright spot for the Suns here was the play of Boris Diaw. He finished with 22, eight rebounds and eight assists. Where Nash faltered, Diaw shined. He was the driving force that kept the Suns in the game early on.
On a night where two series ended – Dallas also fell, to New Orleans – it seemed a replay of last season’s playoffs. The Suns, collapsing down the stretch. San Antonio hanging on late, playing at championship caliber. And a semi-final matchup that everybody’s set for: San Antonio vs New Orleans.
“It’s going to be a great series,” said Parker. “I can’t wait.”
Neither can anybody else.
(Quotes courtesy TNT's broadcast)