Hornets Push Defending Champion Spurs to Brink of EliminationThe San Antonio Spurs have won four championships in the Tim Duncan era but they have never captured back to back titles or even won consecutive Western Conference crowns--and unless they can beat the New Orleans Hornets two games in a row they will once again follow a championship season with a year in which they did not make it back to the Finals. New Orleans broke open a close game five with a 20-4 third quarter run en route to a 101-79 victory, the Hornets' third convincing win over the Spurs in three home games in this series. David West established playoff career-highs in scoring (38 points), rebounding (14 rebounds) and blocked shots (five) despite battling back spasms after the second quarter. West shot 16-25 from the field and he also had five assists. Chris Paul missed his first four field goal attempts and shot just 6-18 from the field overall but he finished with 22 points, 14 assists and just one turnover. Paul singlehandedly outscored the Spurs in the third quarter, 12-11. Manu Ginobili led the Spurs in scoring (20 points) and assists (seven) but he shot just 5-15 from the field. Tony Parker had 18 points but he only passed for four assists while committing three turnovers. Tim Duncan grabbed a game-high 23 rebounds but he was out of sorts offensively from the beginning of the game until the end, shooting 5-18 from the field and scoring just 10 points.
You can't help but be impressed by New Orleans. I thought that the Hornets' lack of playoff experience would hurt them in postseason play, particularly since they are in the side of the playoff bracket that contains the 2006 and 2007 Western Conference champions (Dallas and San Antonio respectively); however, it has not turned out that way at all: New Orleans dispatched Dallas with ease and has outplayed San Antonio overall in this series, though of course the Spurs still have an excellent chance to win at home and send this series to a seventh game.
After the Spurs lost the first two games in New Orleans, San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich made a couple strategic moves that paid off handsomely in games three and four: he moved Ginobili into the starting lineup and he switched defensive specialist Bruce Bowen from Paul to Peja Stojakovic. Ginobili is one Spur who the Hornets really do not match up well with, while the idea behind the defensive change is that Paul is going to get his points regardless of what the Spurs do so it is very important to minimize the production that the Hornets get from other players. Those adjustments still worked in game five--Ginobili played well and Stojakovic only had nine points on 3-8 field goal shooting--but West's performance throughout and Paul's strong second half carried the day for New Orleans.
West is a beast and I don't understand why some people act like West would not be a great player without Paul; West has a good shooting touch out to about 18 feet, he is strong, he is quick and he has excellent footwork. Yes, he gets some open looks when Paul penetrates and draws the defense to him but West creates a lot of his offense with one on one moves. In fact, the best part of his offensive game is when he catches the ball about 15-17 feet from the hoop and goes to work: he'll bury the jumper if the defender backs off but if the defender plays him too closely then he will drive right by him and finish with force in the paint. In the second quarter, there was a sequence when West caught the ball on the left block, faced up Duncan, drove into the paint, Bogarted Duncan out of the way and scored a layup. There are not too many players in the NBA who have the combination of size, quickness and dribbling ability that is necessary to abuse Duncan in that fashion. I thought that Duncan's length would bother West in this series but West seems to be more physically powerful than Duncan and he uses that power to knock Duncan off balance and thus nullify the threat of the shot block.
Part of the reason that West still does not get all of the recognition that he deserves is that scorekeepers give Paul an assist nearly every time he passes to West and West makes a shot regardless of how many fakes, moves and dribbles take place between the time the pass arrives and the time the shot is launched, as I pointed out after game one. That leads people to believe that a large percentage of West's offense is dependent on Paul. The scorekeeper was up to the same tricks in game five. West scored 14 points on 7-9 field goal shooting in the first quarter and an assist was awarded on every one of his shots (six to Paul, one to Jannero Pargo); that is not an accurate representation of the division of labor between the passer and the shooter in those cases. There were some instances in which the passer created the shot by drawing the defense and then dishing but West also used an array of moves to free himself on more than one occasion.
The Hornets took an early 9-3 lead but the Spurs rallied to go up 23-21 by the end of the first quarter despite West's big numbers. In the second quarter the Spurs built a seven point lead a couple times but New Orleans trimmed the margin to 47-44 by halftime. West almost singlehandedly kept the Hornets in the game: at the 8:44 mark in the second quarter the Spurs led 31-24 and West had 16 of New Orleans' points on 8-10 field goal shooting while the rest of his teammates had shot just 2-17. West had 22 points on 10-14 shooting by halftime, while Duncan had four points on 2-11 field goal shooting. As Magic Johnson later noted, the Hornets made a subtle change by waiting to double-team Duncan until he put the ball on the floor; that led to some out of rhythm shots and passes by Duncan.
At halftime, Kenny Smith said that in the first half Paul had made "questionable decisions" for perhaps the first time this season. Specifically, Paul made some mistakes in terms of choosing when to pass and when to shoot. Paul more than made up for that slight lapse by elevating his game in the third quarter, scoring 12 points and dishing off three assists. At the 5:24 mark he connected with Tyson Chandler on an alley-oop play for the first time in quite a while, putting the Hornets up by 10 (61-51) for the first time in the game. I don't understand why the player guarding Chandler would ever leave him unless there is a team concept in place so that someone slides down to box out Chandler when his man confronts Paul in the lane; all Chandler does on offense is catch lobs and chase down rebounds, so his scoring can be drastically cut down just by being aware of where he is at all times.
It was quite strange to watch the Spurs' offense and defense implode simultaneously in the third quarter, as missed shots, poor shot selection and bad passes fed New Orleans' offense. The Hornets led 72-58 by the end of the third quarter and they maintained a double digit lead for most of the fourth quarter. Each of the Spurs' three losses in New Orleans has followed the same general pattern: a good first half followed by a wretched third quarter. Popovich frankly admitted that he does not know why his team has repeatedly come out flat after halftime but if he does not find the answer soon then he will have all summer long to ponder it.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:13 AM