PHOENIX (AP) – What the San Antonio Spurs are doing to the Phoenix Suns could be described as a rite of passage. To Phoenix, it feels more like hazing.

The Suns have taken decent leads into the fourth quarter of the first two games of the Western Conference finals, then made more than half their shots the rest of the way – and lost both times.

With a roster filled with former NBA champions, the Spurs have shot even better down the stretch. They’ve made clutch plays while preventing Phoenix’s playoff novices from doing the same, earning a commanding 2-0 lead with the best-of-seven series headed to San Antonio.

“They’re a veteran team,” lamented Suns star Amare Stoudemire. “They’ve been there, done that.”

It’s called experience, and the Spurs are loaded with it.

The biggest shots in their 111-108 victory in Game 2 on Tuesday night came from Robert Horry and Manu Ginobili. Horry has won five championships, the most among active players. Ginobili has one, plus played for titles in Italy and internationally for Argentina’s national team.

San Antonio also got fourth-quarter boosts from Tim Duncan, the MVP of both NBA Finals he’s been in, and Tony Parker, a starter on a championship team two years ago when he was just 21.

Among Phoenix’s regulars, only MVP Steve Nash and Jim Jackson have ever gotten this far, and neither has made it to the Finals.

“We’re doing a really good job finishing games this series,” Duncan said. “That’s through having guys like Rob and Tony who have been through it. … We understand that we want to get a good possession every time.”

How’s this for taking quality shots: The Spurs made 16 of 22 in the final period of Game 1, turning a six-point deficit into a seven-point win. In Game 2, they trailed by five, then made 12 of 17 to win by three – even though the Suns hit 52 percent in the fourth quarter and 56 percent for the game, tops against San Antonio this postseason.

“At some point, you have to say they deserved to win,” Nash said. “Our guys, I thought, handled themselves well, we just didn’t make the plays that they made. … We just have to stay positive and hungry and go out there and give ourselves a chance again.”

The Suns had one Tuesday night.

After Ginobili made one of two free throws with 4.2 seconds left, Nash took the inbounds pass and hurried for the best 3-pointer he could get to try forcing overtime. He did it last Saturday night against Dallas, but this one was much tougher. The Spurs defended it well, forcing Nash to “try to get something to the rim and see if it would get in.”

It didn’t, leaving Phoenix with its first consecutive losses since early April.

Both teams were off Wednesday, the first of a three-day break before Game 3 on Saturday night in San Antonio.

The layoff should help everyone. Duncan is playing on two sore ankles, and Nash seemingly has been going on fumes considering the roadrunner-like pace he’s played at lately. He was out for only two minutes in Game 2 and he spent them on his back.

Help could be on the way for him and the Suns.

Joe Johnson, who could defend Parker and run the offense while Nash rests, is expected to go through his first full practice on Thursday since breaking a bone near his left eye on May 11. If all goes well the next few days, he might even start Saturday night.

The Suns have to win that game or Game 4 on Monday night just to bring the series back to Phoenix. To reach the finals, they must win four of five, including at least two in San Antonio, where the Spurs have won 43 of 47 games this season.

Phoenix, however, did win a league-best 31 road games this season and four of five so far this postseason.

“There’s no one in this locker room that doesn’t think we can’t go to San Antonio and win,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We can do it.”

History says they won’t. No team has ever won the conference finals or Finals after losing Games 1 and 2 at home. It’s happened in earlier rounds – even once this postseason – but not against the caliber of teams that get this far.

The Suns have been a terrific story this season, going from the lottery to the league’s most wins. They’re fun to watch, too, with an unconventional lineup regularly zooming past 100 points and forcing foes, including the defense-oriented Spurs, to come along for the ride.

The question dogging them going into the playoffs was how they’d handle the pressure that comes with raised expectations. They did fine in the first round, sweeping Memphis, and handled the gut check of a second-round series against Dallas, bouncing back from 1-1 and 2-2 to knock out the Mavericks with consecutive wins.

Phoenix has been resilient against San Antonio, too. The Suns trailed by 10 after the first quarter of both games, yet pulled off one – or two, or three – of their trademark runs to take control … only to see the game slip away at the end.

There is one consolation. At least the Suns are building up their own reservoir of experience they can one day draw from.

“A lot of times,” D’Antoni said, “you have to sample the waters before you jump in.”

AP-ES-05-25-05 1825EDT


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