SAN ANTONIO (AP) – After all they’ve accomplished this season, the Phoenix Suns are taking an incredibly humble goal into what could be their 2004-05 finale.

They want to win the first quarter.

Don’t laugh. The Suns have been way behind going into the second quarter of every game and they consider that a big reason why they trail the San Antonio Spurs 3-0 in the Western Conference finals heading into Game 4 on Monday night.

“Play a little harder in the first quarter – I think that’s the only thing we can do,” center Amare Stoudemire said Sunday. “We’ve got to do a better job of coming out strong. We’ve got to retaliate sooner or later.”

How bad have those early jitters been?

• The Suns have trailed by 10, 13 and 11 points during the first quarters.

• They’ve finished those quarters down by 10, 10 and nine points, continuing a trend that began in the last round against Dallas. They’ve “lost” eight straight first quarters.

• They did have a first-quarter lead this series. Once. They were up 14-12 for all of 1 minute, 2 seconds in the opener. The best they’ve done since was tying it 2-2 each of the last two games.

No wonder coach Mike D’Antoni said with exasperation, “We just want to get to the second quarter and see what happens.”

The Spurs, however, would prefer to see Manu Ginobili grab the opening tip in Phoenix’s end and turn it into a quick layup again, like he did in Games 1 and 3.

“We just have to be ready to match their energy,” said point guard Tony Parker, the driving force behind San Antonio’s fast starts. “We have to make sure we jump at them and take control from the beginning.”

In the first two games, Phoenix showed why it was the league’s highest-scoring team, putting together enough runs to lead in the fourth quarter. Yet the Spurs won both, raising the notion that the comebacks sapped the Suns’ energy and emotion.

There was a lot less analysis needed to figure out what failed Phoenix after its slow start in Game 3 on Saturday night.

The Suns missed their first six shots of the second quarter and the last seven. Even with San Antonio struggling to score, too, Phoenix couldn’t take advantage. The Suns had just 10 points in the period, matching their season low, and went into the locker room with just 39 points, their lowest first half of the season.

Phoenix did rally in the fourth, but not enough. Now it’s likely just a matter of when the Spurs will advance to the Finals.

No NBA team has come back from a three-game deficit. Even worse news for Phoenix: 3-0 leads have become sweeps 45 of 76 times. San Antonio has done it three times in four tries since Tim Duncan arrived – and nobody would benefit more from at least a week off than Duncan and his two ailing ankles.

“We don’t want to give them any hope,” he said. “We know how good a team they are and how their confidence would build with every win we give them, so we want to finish them out.”

Just seeing Duncan on the court might be scary enough. The Spurs are 5-0 against the Suns this season when Duncan plays, which is especially impressive considering his counterpart, Stoudemire, has scored at least 34 every game.

To Steve Nash, the Duncan Factor should be talked about more than all the buzz about San Antonio once again proving that a good defense will always beat a good offense.

“You can say whatever you want, but I think the big difference is No. 21’s a terrific player,” said Nash, who was held to just three assists in Game 3, his lowest for a full game all season. “If we played walk-it-up basketball, I think we’d have a much harder time. They’re a terrific team and he’s one of the best players ever to play. That’s why they’re as good as they are.”

Nash has several ideas of how the Suns can extend their season. Chief among them, of course, was “have a good start.”

He also mentioned having more fun and not getting so frustrated that they abandon the freewheeling playing style that’s turned them from 29-game winners to conference finalists.

D’Antoni said they lost their form in Game 3, trying uncharacteristic things like muscling up on the Spurs or trying too often to beat people one-on-one.

Then again, San Antonio has taken Phoenix out of its game, mainly by cutting off the running game. The Spurs have done it by hustling back to prevent fast breaks and with the old-fashion method of putting the ball in the basket, something that’s been made easier by the Suns’ often being lackadaisical on defense.

“I think it’s almost a relief when we get a stop and we sit and savor it instead of go, and that’s our game,” D’Antoni said. “We haven’t gotten any fast-break points, transition 3s – all the things we live on. We’re just not being aggressive, not changing ends of the floor very fast.”

Down 3-0, they better hurry.

“We’ve just got to win one game right now,” Nash said. “I think that would be a huge reward for us, change the spirit of the team and the series.”


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