The Spurs Aren't Dead YetIn recent days it seems like everyone has come not to praise the San Antonio Spurs but to bury them but their 110-99 game three win over the New Orleans Hornets on Thursday suggested that such funeral plans are very premature. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich resorted to his tried and true tactic whenever things look dire for his team: he shifted Manu Ginobili from the bench to the starting lineup, changing the matchups and rotations for both teams. Ginobili finished with 31 points, six assists and four rebounds and his production proved to be the X factor in a game in which most of the other main players performed at their expected levels. Tony Parker had 31 points and 11 assists, while Tim Duncan had a lot more impact than his 16 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and four blocked shots might suggest. His game-high +15 plus/minus number (five better than Parker's and 10 better than Ginobili's) hints at the importance of his contributions: Duncan drew double-teams that opened up driving lanes and shot opportunities for his speedy sidekicks and on defense he protected the paint well.
Chris Paul once again put up awesome numbers (35 points, nine assists, 15-25 field goal shooting, one turnover), David West had a double double (23 points, 12 rebounds, three blocked shots) and Tyson Chandler did the dirty work in the paint (12 points, eight rebounds, 5-5 field goal shooting) but no other Hornets reached double figures in points and New Orleans shot just 2-11 from three point range after shooting 14-27 from long distance while winning the first two games of the series. Paul really is remarkable--he shoots a good percentage, makes uncanny passes, rarely turns the ball over and does not have to be hidden like a fugitive from justice at the defensive end of the court. That said, this game fits into the blueprint that I have described for how the Spurs can beat the Hornets: a New Orleans opponent cannot live with Paul scoring more than 30 points and having more than 15 assists and it may not be possible to stop him from reaching one of those totals, so it makes sense to stay at home on West, Chandler and the shooters in order to cut down on Paul's assists and force him to be a big time scorer. That is not to say that Paul is not capable of scoring 30-plus points while shooting a good percentage but it will take at least 85 points to win a game in this series, so if a single-covered Paul scores 35 then the other players have to find a way to score at least 50 without getting easy dunks and wide open jumpers. The other thing that is great about this approach is that Paul is a pass-first player by nature and his team's success is built around his passing skills, so he will not be comfortable taking a lot of shots game after game and his teammates will not be used to having to work harder to create their own shots. In the first half, Paul had 18 points and six assists while shooting 8-12 from the field; that 36-12 pace was a bit too much and the Spurs trailed 56-54 even after scoring five points in the last two seconds of the half. In the second half, Paul had 17 points and three assists while shooting 7-13 from the field; that 34-6 pace is just what the doctor ordered and the Spurs pulled away to claim the win. In the fourth quarter, Paul scored six points on 3-7 shooting and he only had one assist as the Spurs outscored the Hornets 27-21.
I'm not saying that Paul had a bad game or that his 15-25 shooting hurt the team--far from it: Paul had a great game. However, since it does not seem possible to shut down Paul completely it makes more sense for the Spurs to stay at home on the other players as opposed to trapping Paul; when Dallas trapped Paul in the first round he made the Mavs look silly by splitting the traps and then scoring or passing at will. As long as the lone defender on Paul makes him work throughout the game then the Spurs can live with him shooting 25 times, even if he shoots a good percentage--and even if his overall percentage is good he may miss more shots than usual down the stretch because he is not accustomed to shooting that much in a game. The Hornets should counter this approach by using a lot of pick and roll plays to force the Spurs to have to switch, thus creating mismatches and/or passing angles for Paul. The Hornets should also use screens away from the ball to free up their shooters, Peja Stojakovic and Morris Peterson. Stojakovic had just eight points on 2-7 field goal shooting, while Peterson scored three points on 1-3 field goal shooting; Stojakovic scored 47 points in the first two games of the series, while Peterson scored 20 points on 8-10 field goal shooting.
This does not specifically relate to game three but one of the most amusing sidebar stories in this series involves Popovich answering some of the "interesting" questions that he is asked by sideline reporters during the games and by various members of the media in his postgame press conferences. "Just don't ask me stupid questions and we'll be OK" is Popovich's mantra regarding the media. Reporters ask stupid questions all the time and most coaches simply resort to answering with bland cliches--but if you ask Popovich a stupid question, his response leaves little doubt about exactly how stupid it really was, as USA Today's Chris Colston notes.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:46 AM