SAN ANTONIO -- Even if the Phoenix Suns don't come all the way back and make the NBA Finals, they're guaranteed of having at least one good memory from the Western Conference finals.
No, make that a great one.
Finally getting out on the fast break and doing a better job on defense, the Suns showed a never-quit spirit from start to finish -- especially the finish -- to beat the San Antonio Spurs, 111-106, last night and prevent being swept in four games.
Amare Stoudemire was far better than his statistics (31 points, five rebounds) showed, making a series of big plays down the stretch. He held Tim Duncan to just 15 points, only four in the second half, and leaped above the rim to block his dunk attempt with 36 seconds left that would have brought San Antonio within one point.
''Unbelievable," Phoenix guard Steve Nash said. ''Even as a teammate, you were just in awe. He was all over the place. He made spectacular plays."
Phoenix went up by 12 points, its biggest lead of the series, midway through the third quarter and never gave it up, despite the Spurs doing their best to pull off their third fourth-quarter comeback of the series. San Antonio made it 102-101 on a 3-pointer by Robert Horry and 107-106 on a 3 by Bruce Bowen with 1:03 left but the Suns refused to go down.
The victory ended Phoenix's longest losing streak since dropping six straight in January and, more importantly, sends them home for Game 5 of the series tomorrow night rather than going home to start their offseason.
''We are sad. We are angry," said Manu Ginobili, who led San Antonio with 28 points. ''But this series continues and we are in great shape. The goal is to go to the Finals, not to sweep them."
Suns coach Mike D'Antoni maintained for two days that his club just needed to iron out some kinks to get past the Spurs and he proved to be right.
They finally led after one quarter, 26-23, something they hadn't done in nine games, since the opener of the last round. They got 26 points from their open-court game, saw Shawn Marion return to form and made the big plays in the closing minutes.
Nash had 17 points and 12 assists, more normal numbers for the MVP after having just three assists last game, the only one that wasn't decided in the closing minutes. Joe Johnson scored 26 points on 10-of-15 shooting, Quentin Richardson scored 14 and Marion had 11, including several in transition and a 3-pointer that capped a 15-2 run in third quarter.
Stoudemire had his fewest points against the Spurs all season and had just the five rebounds, none in the first half. But he got the final rebound that mattered, grabbing a miss by Johnson away from Ginobili in the final seconds, preventing the Spurs from getting the ball back down by three.
Instead, Nash ended up getting fouled and made two free throws with 6.2 seconds left to seal the victory, Phoenix's first in six games this season with San Antonio that Duncan played.
San Antonio lost for the first time since Game 4 of the last round, ending a five-game winning streak. The Spurs lost at home for only the sixth time in 49 games, and now must wait at least two more days before clinching a trip back to the NBA Finals.
Ginobili got many of his points on dazzling layups, such as two that featured behind-the-back dribbles. He also had seven assists.
Duncan was 6 of 12 and played so passively at times that coach Gregg Popovich was yelling at him to be tougher during a fourth-quarter timeout. He responded to that chewing out with a dunk.
Duncan, who also had 16 rebounds, may have been taken out of his game by returning to his free throw woes. After going 15 of 15 last game, and being 33 of 36 for the series, he was 3 of 12. He even missed the rim entirely in the fourth quarter, drawing a loud gasp from the home crowd.
Bowen and Horry each scored 15 points, while Tony Parker had 13, 8 during a first-quarter frenzy, 5 assists and 6 turnovers.