A scalper was working the street outside America West Arena Wednesday when he overheard a reporter say Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli weren’t going to play against the Suns.
"Hey, don’t tell nobody," the scalper said.
The word was out. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was giving the injured Duncan and Ginobli the night off and, just like that, you could cut the tension with a broken plastic fork.
"My tickets were going pretty good until people found out that Duncan and Ginobli weren’t playing," a second scalper said. "Then it was like, pfftttt."
The Suns were deflated as well. They were eager to prove they could beat the best team in the league, the only team they hadn’t defeated this season.
Instead, they got San Antonio’s junior varsity squad and paid attention just long enough to win, 107-101.
"We just had a letdown," said Suns coach Mike D’Antoni. . . . "It happens when you’re psyched up for a game. Then when their two stars are out you turn it down a notch."
The Suns turned it down so far they nearly suffered their most embarrassing defeat of the season.
The conspiracy theorists in the crowd and the pressroom accused Popovich of playing mind games with the Suns.
Supposedly, Popovich wanted Phoenix to enter the postseason riddled with angst, knowing it hadn’t beaten San Antonio when the Spurs were at full strength.
The theory gained some credence when Duncan (sprained ankle) and Ginobli (knee, shoulder, groin) played Tuesday night against the New Jersey Nets.
Twenty-four hours later, they were too hurt to play?
It was a juicy angle.
If it had been true.
The not-so-sexy reality was that Duncan’s ankle swelled up after the New Jersey game, and Popovich was concerned how it would hold up in back-to-back contests.
As for Ginobli, his entire body was hurting, Popovich said, and with the Spurs not playing again until Saturday, he wanted to give his two stars three-days rest.
Makes sense. So does this: Popovich wouldn’t sit his best players in a game that might decide home-court advantage in the Western Conference.
Instead, he understandably sacrificed one victory for the big picture.
"We need to get those guys healthy or it will be an early vacation for us," Popovich said.
The unintended result, of course, is that the Suns still don’t know if they can hang with the Spurs should they meet in the Western Conference finals.
They were blown out in San Antonio in late December, surrendered a 17-point lead at home in January and, on Wednesday, barely survived against Robert Horry, Devin Brown and Mike Wilks.
"We definitely didn’t put any fear in Duncan and Ginobli’s eyes, that’s for sure," D’Antoni said.
No, what they did was water the seed of doubt in their own mind. This game will be forgotten come June, but the residue won’t.
The Suns are now tied with the Spurs for the best record in the Western Conference, but that’s just a line of agate in the morning newspaper.
San Antonio has the trophies, the pedigree and Duncan.
Until the Suns prove otherwise, the Spurs are still the best in the West.