Coming off what head coach Alvin Gentry and point guard Steve Nash both called their finest team performance of the season, the Phoenix Suns are firmly in the driver's seat in their Western Conference semifinal series with the San Antonio Spurs.
In position to put a stranglehold on the Spurs, the Suns roll into AT&T Center for Game 3 of their best-of-seven set on Friday night leading the series 2-0.
Phoenix won 111-102 in Game 2 on Wednesday night at US Airways Center to take control of the series, as the Suns covered as 2.5-point favorites behind 23 points and 11 rebounds from Amare Stoudemire. Nash added 19 points and six assists for Phoenix, which improved to 5-0 ATS (4-1 SU) against San Antonio this season.
Tim Duncan had 29 points and 10 boards for the Spurs, who eliminated the Suns from the postseason in 2005, 2007, and 2008. Considering San Antonio's inability to keep Phoenix off the glass through the first two games of the series, the result should be different this time around.
The Suns' performance on the boards was the story in Game 2. Phoenix outrebounded San Antonio 49-37, and had an impressive 18 offensive rebounds.
Another concern for the Spurs is their inability to slow down the Suns - in their halfcourt set. Phoenix usually has success in pushing the tempo, but it had only eight fastbreak points in Game 2. With 111 points on the night, the Suns broke the 110-point barrier for the fifth time in five games against the Spurs this season.
The good news for San Antonio backers is only one of those five contests took place at AT&T Center. In the teams' only meeting there on February 28, the Spurs got a 113-110 win, although the Suns cashed as 4-point underdogs.
Stoudemire went for 41 points and 12 rebounds in the loss, and he, along with the emergence of the Phoenix bench, is the difference in this series as opposed to in year's past.
Stoudemire has developed enough of post game to give the Suns a true threat in the halfcourt, something they didn't have in '05 or '07. Shaquille O'Neal was with Phoenix for their series with San Antonio in '08, but that was an easier matchup for Duncan. At this stage of his career, Duncan doesn't have the athleticism to hold off Stoudemire for 48 minutes.
It's not like the Spurs can put anyone else on Amare, either. Antonio McDyess is weathered like Duncan, and DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner are stopgap measures at best. Double-teaming Stoudemire also comes with its perils: The Suns shot 47.4% (9-for-19) from downtown in Game 2.
As profitable as Phoenix has been against San Antonio lately, it's also been a worthwhile wager over the long haul. Including the playoffs, the Suns are 54-35-1 ATS this season, and are 17-6-1 against the number during a current 20-4 SU run dating back to the regular season.
Game 4 between Phoenix and San Antonio is set for Sunday night at AT&T Center.
In the other West semifinal series, the Los Angeles Lakers look to take a 3-0 lead over the Utah Jazz on Saturday night at EnergySolutions Arena.
With their 111-103 win as 5.5-point chalk in Game 2 on Tuesday night, the Lakers improved to 8-2 SU (5-5 ATS) in their last 10 games against the Jazz.
The teams split the two games in Salt Lake City during the regular season, with Los Angeles taking the previous meeting there on February 10. Lamar Odom went for 25 points and 11 boards in a 96-81 win for the Lakers (+5.5), who cashed despite playing without Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum.
Over in the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics clash in Game 3 of their second round set on Friday night at TD Garden with the series knotted at one game apiece. Game 4 is slated for Sunday afternoon in Boston.
The Celtics surprised the Cavaliers with a 104-86 win in Game 2 on Monday night. Ray Allen led the way with 22 points and seven rebounds for Boston, which covered easily as 6-point pups.
Elsewhere in the East, the Atlanta Hawks take on the Orlando Magic in Game 3 of their best-of-seven set on Saturday afternoon at Philips Arena.