Spurs Put on a Clinic, Silence the JazzThe Western Conference Finals have turned into the movie Groundhog Day. The script is simple: a close first quarter followed by San Antonio taking a big lead over Utah in the second quarter and never being seriously threatened the rest of the way. Tuesday night in Game Two the result was a 105-96 San Antonio win. The Jazz scored 17 second quarter points on 7-18 field goal shooting, just slightly better than their 16 second quarter points on 7-20 field goal shooting in Sunday's Game One. Tim Duncan had another stellar game: 26 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, five blocked shots, two steals. He has now had at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in 11 straight playoff games, the second best such postseason streak since 1976-77; Shaquille O'Neal once did this in 12 straight games. Tony Parker added 17 points and a playoff career-high 14 assists, though he did have seven turnovers. Manu Ginobili also scored 17 points, while Fabricio Oberto had 14 points on 6-7 field goal shooting. San Antonio shot .556 from the field and 13-26 (.500) from three point range, so this game was pretty much a complete failure for Utah defensively; the Jazz neither contained Duncan nor limited Ginobili and Parker nor shut down the Spurs' three point shooters. Granted, the Spurs are an outstanding team and it may not be possible to stop everything but in order to win you have to control something. It was hard to tell what exactly Utah's defensive game plan is.
On the other hand, San Antonio is using the same blueprint that worked against Phoenix in 2005 and this year: make the opponent shoot contested shots, don't give up open three pointers and don't be overly concerned if one player has a big scoring night because that won't kill you. Amare Stoudemire's high scoring games did not lead Phoenix to victory over the Spurs and San Antonio has already withstood a career-high 34 points from Deron Williams on Sunday and a 33 point effort from Carlos Boozer in Game Two. Boozer also had a game-high 15 rebounds but the Spurs won the overall battle on the boards, 44-35. Utah shot just .439 from the field and 3-11 (.273) from three point range. Williams finished with 26 points and 10 assists this time but 10 of those points came in the fourth quarter, most of which the Jazz spent trailing by at least 10 points--Groundhog Day again, as this is very reminiscent of how the Spurs shut down Steve Nash in the first half of the decisive Game Six and he improved his stat sheet aesthetically in the fourth quarter when the game was all but out of reach. Don't be fooled by the fourth quarter lead that San Antonio blew in Game Four of their series against the Suns, because you can count on one hand the times that a Duncan-led team has blown a double digit fourth quarter playoff lead--and you'd still have enough fingers left to include Nash's two MVPs. Since then the Spurs have built big leads in Game Six against Phoenix and both games against Utah; naturally, those teams made runs in the second half, but San Antonio remained in control throughout. Good NBA teams are going to make runs when they fall behind by big margins but if the Jazz want to avoid being swept they better figure out a way to avoid falling behind by double digits in the first half.
While Duncan's numbers are consistently excellent, his impact is actually even greater than his statistics suggest. On offense he must be constantly double-teamed or he could score 35-40 points easily; this extra defensive attention creates driving lanes for Parker and Ginobili and wide open three point shots for San Antonio's perimeter shooters. On defense, Duncan not only blocks shots and grabs defensive rebounds, his presence causes players to rush shots or even dissuades them from shooting at all once they venture into the paint. Call it the "Bill Russell effect." I believe that it was Hall of Famer Bob Pettit who once described Russell's impact by saying that his shotblocking was such a threat that it would cause players to start missing even the open shots because they were so busy looking for Russell that they could not concentrate on the goal.
Utah is an excellent home team, so the Jazz may very well get back into this series by winning Game Three--but so far it looks like TNT's Charles Barkley fell for the "banana in the tailpipe" (to borrow Greg Anthony's favorite Beverly Hills Cop reference) with his prediction that Utah would come back and win this series. He based that on Utah's performance in the second half of Game One but he should have known that that was fool's gold. Scoring a lot in the second half but still losing is like these NBA teams that fall out of playoff contention by the All-Star break and then win some games in March; that tricks some people into believing that they have turned the corner when in reality they may have just played better because all of the pressure was off. Utah must come up with a sensible defensive game plan--and be able to execute it--to have any chance in Game Three. It is reasonable to assume that Boozer and Williams will continue to put up good numbers and that Utah's role players will shoot better at home, so a Jazz home win is certainly not out of the question--but I expect this series to be 3-1 in favor of the Spurs by the time it shifts back to San Antonio.
***ESPN's Mark Jackson said, "So many teams want to play like the Phoenix Suns. I'd want to play like the Spurs." This is an excellent comment, because even though the Suns and Warriors are much loved for their free flowing style of play the Spurs are actually just as good offensively and much better defensively. I can't understand what anyone could have against the Spurs' style of play: they play fundamentally sound basketball anchored by a great post player who is flanked by two great slashing guards and several good perimeter shooters. The Spurs get out and run and their passing against the Jazz in Game Two was a joy to watch.
***ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy weighed in on LeBron James' decision to pass to Donyell Marshall, saying that it is an "easy copout" to wait for the result of the play and then blame James. Van Gundy said that James made the right basketball play. Honestly, this "controversy" is ridiculous. The Pistons freely admitted that they blew the coverage and that Marshall was not supposed to be left open--which should be obvious considering that a three pointer could cost Detroit the game--but James is being criticized for passing the ball to the open man. It was bad enough when Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley started harping on this but now Stephen A. Smith discounts that Jordan made similar passes by saying that he first proved his greatness by making game winning shots and only later passed the ball. Huh? When Jordan shot the ball all the time at the end of games it was said that he could never win a championship that way. It could very accurately be said that James either has learned to trust his teammates much sooner than Jordan did or that this is simply a natural part of James' game (James insists that he has always played this way and always will); how is this a bad thing? I'll admit that James is not the end of the game closer that Jordan was or Kobe Bryant is but James did make game winning shots last year in the playoffs against the Wizards; that convinced me that he is neither afraid to take such shots nor unable to convert them. The great trust and confidence that he has in his teammates surely has played a big role in the overall development of the Cavaliers. Look how much this team has improved since he arrived and look at how he led Cleveland from down 2-0 to up 3-2 in last year's playoffs versus Detroit. James believes in his teammates which makes them believe in themselves--and him. That trust will serve James and the Cavaliers very well in the future. Jordan and Bryant both had to be convinced--in both cases by Phil Jackson--to trust their teammates with the ball in crucial situations. James should be lauded for his willingness to do this already. So far, his career has shown steady progress, from no playoffs to the second round to the Conference Finals (and possibly beyond). Let's wait at least until there is some sign of stagnation or regression before making pronouncements that James cannot win a championship playing the way that he does now. If the media want to go after superstars who lack rings then there are some guys who have been around a lot longer than James and won a lot more individual accolades than he has but still have no championships to show for it: former MVPs Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett and Steve Nash, to name three. When James has logged as many years as they have let's see how many playoff series and championships he has won.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:09 AM