This time, it wasn't a heartbreaking three at the buzzer that pushed the San Antonio Spurs past the Phoenix Suns.
It wasn't a cheap-shot foul by a Spurs sub against a Suns star.
It wasn't Suns turnovers killing any chance Steve Nash & Co. had of winning the game.
It wasn't less-than-All-Star play by 2009 All-Star Game starting power forward Amar'e Stoudemire.
It was just the Spurs doing what they do so well -- hanging tough when it counts.
The final score was 114-104 Thursday night at US Airways Center, but this was no easy victory for the Spurs. They built the lead with hustle points and hustle defense in the fourth quarter.
Thing is, the Suns played one of the best games they've played all season. Too bad it was against the intense-from-the-top-down Spurs, who're led by the best coach in the NBA, Gregg Popovich (pictured).
Guys love playing for Popovich. He's focused on flooring a championship-caliber team every season, but he instills a love for the game in his players. He could be seen on the sidelines Thursday night giving rookie George Hill a shoulder rub and telling him to "just play basketball and have fun."
Whether they're having fun or not, the Spurs have an instinct for getting the deal done in clutch situations. They find a way to beat you.
The game was tied 57-57 at the half, largely because of 37-year-old Suns swingman Grant Hill. He had his best overall game of the season, finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds. He was slashing to the basket and hitting jumpers all night. Hill looked like he did many surgeries and a couple of teams ago, when he was getting touted as the next Michael Jordan.
Though Stoudemire was his usual bone-head self on defense against San Antonio -- like when he hardly lifted a finger as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli slipped past their primary defender and went in for layups -- he scored 28 points and had 10 rebounds in the game.
Steve Nash had 18 assists to go along with 16 points. It was one of those contests where Nash was doing what the Suns need him to do -- dish the ball to his teammates. Phoenix wins much more often when he's passing instead of scoring.
But not on this night.
The Spurs have a way of getting to the Suns. It's those past four years of Tim Duncan, Ginobli, and Parker -- plus whatever hard-nosed role players Popovich rotated into the lineup -- ending Phoenix's championship dreams in the playoffs. It's that three-point winning basket at the buzzer by guard Roger Mason on Christmas Day.
You could feel it in the arena -- every Sun and Suns fan hates the Spurs. When Duncan got a technical foul, the roar was defening.
With 20 points and 15 rebounds, the Big Fundamental had his usual solid night, but Parker and Ginobli killed the Suns when in crunch time. The Argentinian had 30 points and 9 rebounds, plus he annoyed the Suns on defense all night long. He was able to rattle the normally even tempered Nash into commiting a technical.
It was a game where the Suns got three Ts: Stoudemire, naturally, committed one, and Shaq committed the other.
But just as great a factor as Ginobli in the Spurs' win was point guard Parker. The Frenchman had no trouble finessing his way to the basket past the old and slow Nash. When it was over, he had 26 points, the lion's share in the paint.
The Suns didn't kill themselves with turnovers, like they've done practically all season -- they had 7. Problem was, the machine-like Spurs had 6.
Now second in the Western Conference behind the Lakers after getting off to to a slow start, San Antonio's got a 31-14 record. The Suns fall to 25-19, which means they're a half-game behind the Dallas Mavericks in the eighth and final spot in the West. The Utah Jazz are breathing down the Suns' necks at ninth.
The loss ruined Shaq's spirited ride into the pre-game spotlight in the arms of Suns subs (Coach Terry Porter wasn't about to risk injury to a starter by letting him help tote the 350-pound bruiser). The occasion was O'Neal's naming as an All Star for the 15th time in 17 NBA seasons.
The All-Star Game's here, of course, on February 15. It's the first year since he's been in the desert that Nash didn't make the team.