Hornets Rout Spurs Again to Take 2-0 Series LeadOn ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown show, Chris Berman is fond of repeating the line, "Once is an accident, twice is a trend, three times is a problem." New Orleans has blown out San Antonio two games in a row, so the Spurs are one loss away from having a serious problem and two losses away from taking an early vacation. New Orleans' 102-84 victory on Monday night was a very impressive display of teamwork at both ends of the court. Chris Paul led the way with 30 points, 12 assists and just one turnover. His three most important skills are quickness, court vision and good decision making; he has a very highly developed sense of when to shoot and when to pass and that is why his field goal percentage is high and his turnovers are low. He is already better now than two-time MVP Steve Nash ever was because Paul has more foot speed and he is not a defensive liability. David West had 10 rebounds and five assists but he shot just 2-11 from the field, finishing with 10 points; Peja Stojakovic (25 points on 8-13 field goal shooting) and Morris Peterson (12 points on 5-5 field goal shooting) teamed with Paul to pick up the slack.
Naturally, the media and fans will tend to focus on the masterful way that Paul choreographed the Hornets' offense but the job that New Orleans is doing on defense is at least as impressive: the Hornets held the Spurs to 31-73 field goal shooting (.425), containing each of the team's three stars without letting any of the role players get loose. Tim Duncan bounced back from his disastrous game one performance to put up solid numbers (18 points, eight rebounds) but he never controlled the action and he actually had the worst plus/minus number (-32) of anyone in the game, which has to be a pretty rare occurrence for him. Manu Ginobili scored 13 points on 4-10 field goal shooting and his seven assists were nearly offset by his game-high five turnovers, several of which were the result of good on the ball pressure by the Hornets. Tony Parker played like a Hall of Famer versus Nash's Suns but he looked very ordinary in this game, scoring 11 points on 5-14 field goal shooting and having as many turnovers as assists (three).
Why are the playoff-neophyte Hornets having more success against the Spurs than the Suns ever did? The first reason is that the Hornets don't have to crossmatch in order to guard Parker; unlike Nash, Paul can stay in front of him and, when necessary, steer him toward his shotblockers (as opposed to letting Parker go wherever he wants to go, which is what the Suns kept doing no matter who had the primary defensive responsibility to check him). The second reason is that the Hornets are much more committed to their defensive scheme than the Suns have ever been; prior to game two, West told a TNT interviewer that the Hornets will never hang a teammate out to dry: if there is a matchup that is troublesome for a given player then another Hornet will slide over to help. You see that repeatedly with the way that they swarm Duncan in the post and then rotate quickly if Duncan swings the ball to an open man. Phoenix has a lot of quick and athletic players but the Suns seem to move to the ball much faster on offense than they do when they are rotating on defense; as West explained after game two, New Orleans has a totally different mindset than that: "We're trying to make sure our defense is where we want to start. We don't worry about what we're doing on the offensive end. We stuck to what we do." The third reason is that Tyson Chandler and West do an excellent job of protecting the paint, shutting off dribble penetration and blocking shots. When a team has a solid defensive point guard, a commitment to play energetically on defense and big guys who guard the paint then it can make life very miserable for opponents.
New Orleans Coach Byron Scott is just the latest example of a Coach of the Year who has been wrongly blasted for years by fans and media members who don't know the first thing about evaluating whether or not a coach is doing a good job; you cannot go strictly by wins and losses because some teams simply don't have enough talent in place to win a lot of games. A well coached team plays hard, plays together at both ends of the court, executes well (which still may not result in wins if the opposing team is much more talented) and demonstrates improvement over time both individually and collectively. Greg Anthony once made a great point about Phil Jackson: his teams never underachieve--when Jackson has had great talent he has won championships (which is not easy to do) but even when his teams were not good enough to win it all they played up to their maximum potential. Scott's New Jersey Nets improved from 26 wins in 2001 to 52 wins and an NBA Finals berth in 2002; granted, trading Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd played a big role in that transformation but there are no "headless horsemen" in the NBA: a team has to be well prepared and well coached to have success, especially in the playoffs. Scott's Hornets improved from 18 wins in 2005 to 38 wins in 2006 and after an injury-riddled 2007 they jumped to 56 wins this season. Unless you are foolish enough to believe that Scott either (1) has suddenly gotten much smarter or (2) had nothing to do with either team's improvement then you have to recognize that he is a very good coach.
Don't interpret this post to be some kind of eulogy for the Spurs. This is not the time for that--yet. Although history shows that teams that win the first two games of a playoff series at home virtually always win the series, the veteran-laden defending champions should not be counted out. The Spurs have led at halftime in both games only to get blitzed in the third quarter on each occasion. They must find a way to avoid the offensive dry spells that have plagued them right after halftime and they must tinker a bit with their defensive game plan: Paul is a pass-first player, so I think that the Spurs should stay at home on guys like Stojakovic and Peterson and force Paul to shoot more often; of course, that plan won't work if Paul gets into the paint and shoots layups, so the Spurs must build a wall around the paint the way that they did against LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in last year's NBA Finals.
If the Spurs "hold serve" in games three and four then there will obviously be a lot of pressure on the Hornets to win game five at home to avoid facing an elimination game on the road.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:19 AM