Spurs Give One Away

San Antonio had a myriad of excuses heading into this game. A tough seven game series ended with a draining road win only two nights earlier, the lack of rest, the wear and tear on the aging team, then throw in the airplane debacle that cost them a good night’s sleep before a cross-country flight. With the rested top seed Lakers waiting at home, why even play game one.

Well, they played, and San Antonio jumped Kobe’s crew, a 20 point blowout into the third quarter. Then the walls crumbled. LA mounted the second biggest playoff comeback since 1998, overcoming the deficit to win by four. Actually, LA did not comeback so much as the Spurs retreated and Kobe, by himself, charged ahead.

13 points in the fourth quarter in a playoff game is terrible. Call it fatigue, call it good defense, the reason the Spurs scored 13 points was Phil Jackson adjusted to Duncan’s dominance, and nobody stepped up. Ginobili, who carried the team in the New Orleans series as Duncan faced a tough matchup, played awful, shooting 3-13 for only 10 points. He missed big shots down the stretch, and turned it over four times. The Sixth Man of the Year turned starter must play well for San Antonio to win. Once LA adapted to Duncan inside, the Spurs offense shutdown.

Contrary to Game Seven on Monday night, the bench produced a meager 11 points for San Antonio. No clutch shots from the Finleys, the Horrys, and the Udokas of the world. No 3-point barrage. No big secondary performance. Duncan will not go quietly this series, proving last night with a vintage 30 point, 18 rebound effort that nobody on the Lakers can guard him in single coverage. The rest of the team needs to step up now. If Ginobili shoots 3-13 and can’t get to the line, San Antonio has no chance, none what so ever. He is the spark plug for this team.

Not to be outdone by Lebron, Kobe showed that he is still the best playoff performer in the league. After a quiet 2-point first half, he decided to take over – yes, he actually said, he knew he could just flip the switch on at will, how great is that. Bryant scored with ease in the second half, the Lakers as a team played under control but at their pace. They never panicked and they operated like a well oiled machine on both ends of the floor.

If any team can overcome blowing this game, its the Spurs. The same way we said the Spurs could overcome the 0-2 hole against New Orleans. The loss hurts, hurts a lot, Poppovich said as much. With Ginobili struggling the Spurs offense disappeared, reverting exclusively to Duncan in the post. When the Lakers finally took that away with double teams the Spurs fizzled – and it showed. The Argentine, and backcourt compadre Tony Parker hold the key. Bryant will get his every game, Duncan will get his, Parker and Ginobili need to make the difference or the Spurs are in trouble.

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Better Than Advertised

Never has an entire conference playoff slate, first round through the conference finals, been more anticipated than this year’s Western playoffs. Consider the regular season brought the most tightly contested conference playoff race in NBA history, seven games separating the eight Western Conference playoff teams, all who finished with 50 or more wins. Throw in the defending champs, the top two MVP candidates, a 22-game win streak, surprise teams, mid-season acquisitions trying to justify themselves, the West has it all. Could the actual games can match the hype.

How about a 2-OT thriller, three game tying shots with under 20 seconds left in the respective stanzas, and a game winner with 1.2 seconds remaining to whet the appetite. Phoenix-San Antonio was billed as the series of the first round, and Game One was a heavyweight battle. Manu Ginobili capped off an 8 point outburst in the double overtime period with a driving layup over Shaq to grab a 117-115 Spurs win.

Ginobili’s double OT outburst was made possible by a game-tying 3-pointer with 3 seconds left in the first OT by an unlikely source, Tim Duncan, his first of the season. Duncan scored the final nine points in the first OT, in route to a game-high 40 points and 15 rebounds. The Big Fundamental simply would not let San Antonio lose, scoring seven down the stretch to erase a nine-point fourth quarter deficit, his eyes filled with focus and desire. Duncan truly becomes a different player in the post-season, elevating his game after coasting at times during the regular season. Critics wondered if this might be the year San Antonio shows its age, or vulnerabilities, in Game One Duncan would have none of it. Scoring almost at will inside, stepping out to can jumpers, even burying the clutch three.

Meanwhile, Ginobili answered any questions about his hamstring, chipping in with 24 off the bench, along with a clutch defensive play in overtime, tipping a pass away, leading to an Amare Stoudemire foul to prevent the steal. Tony Parker added 26 and buried a few clutch shots down the stretch, but none as big as Michael Finley, who nailed a three with 16 seconds left in regulation to send it to OT. Finley finished with 13 points.

Stoudemire carried Phoenix, continuing his torrid second half with 33 points and 7 rebounds before fouling in the first overtime. Losing Stoudemire may have been the difference. Without his partner in crime, the Spurs were able to pressure Nash on pick and rolls, forcing the rest of the team to beat them. With Stoudemire on the court, particularly in the fourth and first OT, the Spurs struggled to defend pick and roll, allowing Nash to use the screens for open jumpers, or to easy penetration. When San Antonio went after Nash, Stoudemire got one on one looks in the paint, almost automatic.

One year after a physical series marred with the infamous fight, the first half had its share of tough play. Both teams griped with the referees over almost every foul call, constantly flopping for charges. But things settled down in the second half, the intensity picked up to levels usually reserved for conference or NBA finals, and the stars stepped up – Nash, Stoudemire, Ginobili, Duncan, and Parker.

Kurt Thomas provided solid defense and rebounding off the Spurs bench, drawing the charge that sent Stoudemire to the bench for good, to go with 10 big rebounds. Relegated to the bench with foul trouble in the first, O’Neal was a non-factor on the offensive end in crunch time, instead focusing on defending Duncan. However, after picking up his fifth foul in double OT, Shaq became passive in the paint. Using Duncan primarily for screens, the Spurs turned to Ginobili, who attacked Shaq play after play with drives to the basket, knowing the big man did not want to pick up his sixth foul, especially with Stoudemire already gone.

If this is any indication, we may have the best first round series in NBA history. Buckle up, its going to be a doozy, round two set for Tuesday night in San Antonio. After what appears to be a grueling series ahead, will either of these teams have enough left in the tank to conquer the rest of the playoffs. The NBA’s playoff schedule, resembling a retiree’s work schedule, might be their only saving grace.