Demons lurk for the Phoenix Suns in their upcoming playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs.
They were also there in Game 1 of the 2007 Western Conference semifinals, when the Suns' Steve Nash collided head-on with Tony Parker. A cut on Nash's nose bled uncontrollably and he was forced to sit out 45 seconds of the critical final minute of a close loss in Phoenix.
A week later, in Game 4 in San Antonio, the Suns were wrapping up a victory with 18 seconds to go when Robert Horry slammed Nash into the scorer's table with a hockey-style hip-check. Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw came off the bench to Nash's defense.
The result, an automatic one-game suspension for Stoudemire and Diaw for "leaving the vicinity of the bench." The short-handed Suns lost Game 5 in Phoenix, then the Spurs clinched the series with a win in San Antonio and went on to win the NBA title.
Of his three Suns teams that lost to the Spurs in the playoffs, Nash said that one "was equal to or better than they were, for sure."
A year later, the Suns and Spurs met in the first round, and Game 1 hastened the end of the Mike D'Antoni era in Phoenix.
First, Michael Finley's 3-pointer forced overtime. Then, as the final second ticked off in the first overtime and the Suns leading 104-101, Tim Duncan made his only 3-pointer of the season. The Spurs went on to win the game in double overtime and took the series 4-1. Soon, D'Antoni left for the New York Knicks.
"I don't believe in curses, so I can't say that I feel cursed," Nash said, "but have we had a few bad breaks? Yeah."
Four of the last five times the Suns have been in the playoffs — dating to 2003 — San Antonio has been the team that eliminated them. They meet again on Monday in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry, D'Antoni's assistant in losses to the Spurs in 2005, 2007 and 2008, insists this is a different team and that history has no bearing. Only Nash, Stoudemire and Leandro Barbosa remain from that 2007 Phoenix team.
"We've got plenty of guys that haven't even been around for any of those series," Gentry said, "so why talk about them, why go back, why revisit them? I don't see anything beneficial in any of that, really."
Stoudemire is the only player still on the team who was part of all four of those playoff defeats. He was a rookie, and Stephon Marbury was the point guard on the 2003 Suns team that lost to the Spurs in six games in 2003.
"I've played against them so many times where I know exactly what they're capable of," Stoudemire said. "For our young guys, it's very important to let them know what the Spurs are all about."
The Suns' Grant Hill was around for only the most recent series loss to the Spurs, and he recalls how devastating that 2008 Game 1 was.
"It was such a heartbreaker, such a tough loss," Hill said. "Not just that we lost but how we lost. We were up big, Duncan hits a 3, Finley hits a 3. It took us maybe two or three games to recover, and by then the series was over."
Regardless of what Gentry said, don't think Nash isn't happy to get another crack at Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
"Even though it's been lopsided it's a pleasure to play against a franchise as strong as they have been and the battles we've had in the past," Nash said. "So, to get another chance to play them is great. These are the things I think you'll remember more than most things when your career is over."
Most of these Suns, however, aren't burdened with that frustrating history.
"That's not even part of who we are, what we're about," Jason Richardson said. "That's in the past. The fans are still going to remember that, of course. But this is something different with a new team. We're a different team and we want to establish something new."