“Aging” Spurs Sweat One Out

It took four games in New Orleans for the defending champs to show up. The boring, monotonous, robotic machine, fundamentally sound, substance without the flash, that has dominated the NBA playoffs for the better part of the decade. Everyone waited for them to emerge in this series and play a big game on the road to win, they waited until Game Seven. San Antonio won with its vintage formula, with a slightly different twist.

Defense, a dash of role player, a pinch of rebounding, mix it together, bake, top with 12 three pointers, cook for 48 minutes and enjoy on the flight to LA for Game One of the conference finals.

A nine-point first half lead meant little. In this series, the home teams won each game in the third quarter, New Orleans blitzing the Spurs in each of the three previous games in the Big Easy. Difference number one, San Antonio’s defense contained Chris Paul after the half. They slowed the game down. Each time Paul tried to run out in transition after a miss, the defense cut him off, whether it meant sending two defenders to slow him down, or simply fouling in the backcourt, San Antonio mitigated Paul’s transition game. Forced to play half-court defense, Bowen and Parker buckled down on Paul, and Popovich cooked up interesting schemes to defend the pick and roll. Defenders sagging in the lane, great hedges, all preventing Paul from invading the lane and creating easy baskets.

Forced to a more traditional half-court game, the Hornets went to West often. The All-Star forward missed a handful of makable mid-range shots, finishing the third 2-7 from the field with one turnover. Paul struggled from the outside, San Antonio owned the glass, preventing easy second chance opportunities. It all adds up to 14 third quarter points for New Orleans – job well done by the champs.

The Hornets made a big run in the fourth, cut a 17 point lead to 3 late in the game. Jannero Pargo, not Paul, got into the lane to create. Pargo came almost out of nowhere for 16 fourth quarter points, carrying the Hornets before Tony Parker stuck a dagger in them with a clutch jumper at the :50 mark to extend the lead to five and make it a foul shooting contest.

Offensively, the Spurs only netted 40 points in the second half. Most possessions were far from picturesque, as San Antonio finished the game shooting only 39.5%, dragged down by Tim Duncan’s 0-10 finish. While Duncan struggled shooting and sat with foul trouble, the Spurs role players stepped up with huge shots. Big game, no surprise Robert Horry stepped in with a pair of threes. Popovich dusted off Michael Finley to bury two big second-half threes, and Ime Udoka chipped in with 8 points, including two threes of his own. You see the trend, big three pointers, 12 in all on 42.9% shooting from downtown, half of them off the bench.

Showing that playoff experience and road savvy, the Spurs dominated at the line, nailing 19-21. If the offense struggles, you have to make free throws and San Antonio did in the second half. 16 of its 40 points in the half came from the line, even Duncan knocking down all six of his attempts. Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili accounted for all 21 free throw attempts. None had sterling shooting nights, but they all contributed to the win. Winners do whatever it takes to win at all costs. San Antonio’s three stars did that. In this game it meant defense, getting to the line, and setting up open teammates.

Despite a poor second half, Duncan finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Underline the rebounds. San Antonio owned the glass, outdoing New Orleans 51-42. Outside of a possession late in the game that the Hornets snatched 4 offensive rebounds on, ending with a Pargo trey, it was San Antonio causing havoc on the offensive glass. Even when they didn’t capitalize with a basket, multiple second chance opportunities for the Spurs drained the clock, deflating the Hornets. When he wasn’t throwing daggers from three point land, Horry grabbed five offensive rebounds. Again, veterans contributing any and every way to win games.

Nondescript, ugly at times, in the end San Antonio got the job done once again. The first Game Seven road win in the Duncan era and first 0-2 comeback of the dynasty, the Spurs enter more unchartered waters, advancing to the conference finals for the first time as a defending champion.

I’ll stick with my mantra – they are the champs until someone proves otherwise.

Spurs Force Game Seven

Arguably the best second round match-up in the NBA playoffs, going to a decisive Game Seven, yet can this series be called a classic if the first six games were all won by the home team by double digits? Since the first games of a playoff series have never been decided by 10 or more points, its hard to say. Not a close game in the group. We’ll leave that debate for after the series.

Game Six played out much like the rest of the games. The third quarter decided the game. Why even play the first half in this series. Each game was tight at halftime, before the home team pulled ahead in the third and finished off the win in the fourth. Most games turned to blowouts in the third. Energized crowd, careless turnovers by the road team, withering under the pressure, big shots by the home team.

The Hornets opened the half with three quick turnovers – more than the entire first half – and only managed 12 points in the quarter. San Antonio did not fully capitalize until late in the third, ending the period on a 7-0 run that they extended to 13-0 with two quick threes to start the fourth, pushing the lead to an insurmountable 21 points. Duncan had a vintage 20-point, 15-rebound game. He owned the glass, hit big shots when he needed, but more importantly efficiently passed off when double teams came, opening opportunities for the rest of the team, accumulating six assists on the way.

Giniboli and Parker played their usual solid games. The Argentine throwing six three-point daggers at Byron Scott’s crew, stepping up in a big game to nobody’s surprise. San Antonio expects big efforts from its Big Three. The big road-home disparity is with the role players. Ime Udoka chipped in with 13 points in a solid 21 minutes off the bench, coming up with a big block and two baskets during the second half stretch when the Spurs put the game away. Bowen played solid defense on everyone he matched up, and Kurt Thomas snared 9 boards.

Meanwhile, Paul’s supporting cast failed to provide any support. CP3 had a relatively low key 21 point, 8 assist night. Low-key by his now unfathomable expectations. Chandler shot 7-8 from the field for 14 points, but he should give most of those points to Paul. The point guards ability to drive, draw defenders, and make pinpoint passes to setup easy dunks enable Chandler to shine. Scott’s bench was awful, Jannero Pargo did not belong on the court last night, struggling to make anything happen. West failed to duplicate his coming of age performance in Game Five, before Robert Horry delivered a knock out blow to his back.

Explaining why teams play markedly different at home and on the road is difficult. The movie Hoosiers sums it up, the basket is the same height, the court is the same size, the players are all the same. Yet these two teams – and the Celtics – take on two completely different personalities based on the venue. In this series, halftime started a snowball effect of problems that became an avalanche as the quarter went on. Momentum builds, and the road team starts to buckle under the pressure.

As the Spurs pulled away, West took a shot to the back from Horry on a back screen that West did not see coming. Suffering from back problems, West took a few minutes to get on his feet before heading to the locker room for the night. Stop the conspiracy theories, Horry did not take a cheap shot. Yes, it was blind, and he probably put a little extra oomph behind it because he knew West did not see him, but that’s normal. Every NBA player does that. The fact West had a bad back did not matter. If it was Chandler, Horry does the same thing. Let the play go. It may b a little cheap, but falls well within the realm of being “part of the game”. Expect West to play Monday night.

Throw experience out the window Monday night, its the Spurs first road Game Seven during the Duncan era, unchartered territory. Expect the stars to shine, and the crowd to rise. Outside of that, no certainties. Which role players will step up? Does Horry have another big shot left in him? And can Duncan rebound from three subpar road performances in the Big Easy?

Spurs Bounce Back, Game Four Keys

Nobody envisioned the defending champs would go down without making this a series. Returning home following two decisive losses, where New Orleans made San Antonio appear old and slow, raising at least a few doubts about its longevity in this postseason, the Spurs responded. Gregg Poppovich made two noticeable adjustments, moving Bruce Bowen off Chris Paul to defend Peja Stojakovic and starting Sixth Man of the Year Bruce Bowen. Both paid dividends, but neither deserve credit for the win.

Putting Bowen on Stojakovic is admitting that nobody will stop Chris Paul, the key is containing his supporting cast. Taking away his weapons, forces Paul to create his own shots, minimizing the easy opportunities he creates for others. As expected, Paul played another awesome game, dicing up the slower Tony Parker for 35 points. However, Paul took 25 shots, a total he eclipsed only 7 times all season, and he failed to reach double digit assists (9). Less opportunities for those around him, Stojakovic in particular, who was held to eight points on 2-7 shooting, both personal lows for this post-season.

Ginobli dominated in his first post-season start, slashing his way to 31 points and six assists. We can argue the merits of starting versus providing a spark off the bench, the biggest advantage from starting Ginobli is that he was on the court for almost 40 minutes, 10 more than he averaged the first two games. The Argentine changes the game when he is on the floor, the Spurs need him in this series, and for the rest of these playoffs. If starting him means more total minutes of impact, then Pop has to start him.

While the Bowen change improved the team defense, New Orleans still managed 99 points, in line with its performance in the first two games. The difference in Game Three was San Antonio’s offense. Parker exuded the same confidence he showed against Phoenix, not hesitating when the defense gave him shot opportunities, driving to the basket hard, forcing the action rather than waiting for it to come to him. He matched Ginobli with 31 points, adding 11 assists.

Tim Duncan did not break out with big game after he was virtually non-existent in the first two games, he did all the little things – the fundamentals. New Orleans insists on doubling down on Duncan, in Game Three he adeptly drew defenders and passed off. Defensively, he stepped up, notching 13 boards and 4 blocks, standing up to David West and Tyson Chandler, who each outplayed Duncan in the Big Easy.

San Antonio feeds off Duncan, the entire team looked more comfortable as he looked more comfortable. Overall, passing was crisp, shot selection was better, and the Spurs played a consistent 48 minute game. Another overlooked stat, the third quarter. In the first two games, New Orleans blew the doors off San Antonio out of halftime, on Thursday night, the Spurs won the third and won the game. Playoff games are won in the second half – though Boston proved last night, they can be lost in the first half. Coming out of the half weak killed the champs the first two games, and may have saved them last game.

This is not a series until San Antonio can win Game Four. Unless Duncan can manage one of those 30+ point, 20+ rebound performances, where the team jumps on his back, Parker and Ginobili have to step up to the occasion, play with confidence, shoot well, and get to the basket. I’ll reiterate, as I have all year, they are the champs until beaten.

Western Playoff Stampede

San Antonio, Utah, and New Orleans have a chance to end the most lopsided Western Conference playoff round in recent memory. Bad enough the lower seeds have only won three games, six of the 12 games have been decided by double figures – three happen to be in the Utah-Houston series. So much for the anyone can win the conference claim.

Denver never gave Los Angeles a match. The Nuggets self-destructed, losing every aspect of the game except technical fouls. Combined with the Laker discipline and execution, with Denver’s selfish play, lack of discipline and lack of ball movement, it adds up to a sweep. Carmelo Anthony was right – his team, top to bottom, quit.

Dallas traded the farm for 7.3 points, 6.3 assists, and a nice view of the Chris Paul show. Oh yeah, forgot that ejection. That sums up Jason Kidd’s performance in this series. Paul makes Kidd look old, totally dominating him on both ends of the court at will. Less prominent, though as imposing, Dallas has no equal for David West either. Josh Howard disappeared into a cloud of smoke that only thickened after his untimely comments. The coach is on the hot seat, the star point guard doesn’t belong on the same court as his counterpart, the Small Forward lacks any judgment, throw in two superstars on the other team, adds up to New Orleans coasting in five tonight.

Forever the playoff goat, Tracy McGrady unfairly shouldered the blame for his teams inability to win a playoff series prior to this year. However, he earned that blame against Utah, scoring 1 point in the combined fourth quarters of Games 1 and 2. Yes, the Rockets are banged up . Yes, Utah has a solid team up and down the roster. But if they hang in the game until the final minute, McGrady has to close it out. More and more it looks like he’ll never live down that comment about the Pistons, up three games to one in 2003 while with Orlando. If Houston extends the series, Utah will not lose at home twice.

The mother of all first round series, San Antonio and Phoenix. Last week I wrote about a scintillating Game One that the Spurs pulled out in double overtime, best game of the year. Phoenix responded with a strong start in Game Two, then went on vacation for six quarters. Always consistent, ready to pounce on the opponent, San Antonio erased a a double-digit deficit in Game Two to win easily, before blowing the doors of the arena early in Game Three. Nash and company recovered in Game Four, but beating San Antonio four straight in the playoffs, without home court is daunting.  Unable to stop the penetration of Parker and Ginobili, the Suns become susceptible to easy shots, and kick outs for three. The defending champs took Sunday off, expect them to rebound tonight. Shaq has played pedestrian this series, failing to make a significant contribution on either side of the floor. No longer an offensive threat, too slow to play consistent defense. Losing Grant Hill, forever injured, hurts Phoenix tremendously on defense, its best answer to the younger, quicker Parker. Prior to Sunday, the Suns role players – Barbosa and Diow – failed to show up, players they need in order to win. Of any team trailing 3 games to 1, this team has the best chance to at least extend the series. They need a full team effort, and someone needs to control the perimeter on defense to slow down the Spurs attack.

Round Two is shaping up with two intriguing matchups, then again, we thought Round One was too.

For the Record: NBA Playoff Picks

This year’s NBA playoffs has it all – except the Knicks. Los Angeles and Boston at the forefront, All-Stars galore, to go along with the most competitive conference in league history. Lakers-Celtics is the NBA’s dream matchup, David Stern TV ratings and dollar signs float through his head just thinking about it. Unfortunately for the Commissioner, I envision a repeat of 1988, not 1986. Enough hype, let’s get it on.

Eastern Conference

36 win teams do not belong in the playoffs. They don’t deserve to collect a playoff share, or even get the chance to pull an upset. Boston dominated the NBA – not just the East, proving it with a 22-5 mark vs. Western Conference foes. KG and company swept Atlanta in the season series, expect much of the same in round one – Celts in 4.

Rarely do 59-win teams fly under the radar, especially one with five consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances and a chip on their shoulder after losing to an inferior team last season. Welcome to the Detroit Pistons world. Ripe with a rare mix of veteran leadership, playoff experience, and young energy off the bench, this Pistons team goes deeper than years past, though questions remain on how youngsters Rodney Stuckey, Amir Johnson, Aaron Afflalo, and Jason Maxiell will handle the playoff intensity. Philadelphia had a phenomenal season, outliving expectations. But Mo Cheeks maximized what he could from this team, a few late season losses cost them the sixth seed. Detroit’s advantage in playoff experience, and lock down defense should make this a quick exit for the surprising 76er’s, not a series with the intensity to test those Piston youngsters – Detroit in 5.

Dwight Howard arrived this season. No longer the next big thing, Howard is an almost automatic double-double every time he steps foot on the court, yet the key to Orlando’s ascension to 50 wins was Hedo Turkoglu. A potential Most Improved Player Candidate, the 28-year old from Turkey increased his scoring by over 6 points, and both assists and rebounds by more than 1.5 per game. Off-season acquisition Rashard Lewis teams up with Howard and Turkoglu to form arguably the best frontcourt in the league, one that can beat you from inside and out. Point guard remains Orlando’s weakness, playing right into the strength of the disappointing Toronto Raptors, with a two-headed monster at point that most teams would kill for, TJ Ford and Jose Calderon. After emerging to win the Atlantic last season, Toronto regressed, falling apart when an injury forced Chris Bosh out of action. Bosh vs. Howard is a great matchup of contrasting styles, power and finesse, but the Raptors surrounding cast does not play tough and does not match up with Orlando – Magic in 6.

There are some things you don’t do, then just shake your head when someone does it. DeShawn Stevenson went there. He called out Lebron James. Mind you, this is not Kobe or Duncan making statements, championship rings to back them up, this is DeShawn Stevenson. Calling the NBA scoring champion who carried his team to the NBA finals overrated, a brainfreeze, calling the rest of the Cavs underachievers though, on the money. If Stevenson didn’t light the flame, Washington enters the series playing much better than Cleveland, and they add Gilbert Arenas to a team that learned to play without him. Now, the Wizards must beware of the King taking out his frustration and single-handedly winning this series. Before Stevenson, Washington in 6, now – Cavs in 7.

A two horse race all season, its only fitting the conference championship comes down to Detroit and Boston. The Celtics bring the star power – KG, Pierce, and Allen – with a surprisingly dominant defense and home court. After failing to reach the Finals each of the past two seasons Detroit is on a mission to get back. None of the Celts stars have played big in a big game yet, Detroit’s have. They want the big shot. Point guard is the difference, while Rajon Rondo exceeded expectations, he’s not Chauncey Billups. That matchup will be the difference in this classic series – Detroit in 7.

Western Conference

It happened last season, the eight seed knocking off the top seed in the West, this year only 6 wins separate the two, could it happen again? Not unless Denver suddenly learns how to play defense. Kobe has the running mate he begged for in Pau Gasol, a legit All-Star who fit right into the Lakers system like a glove. Hidden as a third option, don’t underestimate Lamar Odom, an immense talent that quietly averaged a double-double. Odom creates match-up problems for opponents, and can take over a game. The Lakers won’t need him to do that in Round One – LA in 5.

Rarely is the second-seed viewed as an underdog in the opening series, especially one that boasts an MVP candidate. Not quite the underdog in Vegas, a Hornets first round exit would still surprise few. The knock on them, never been there before. Well, Utah’s current cast never did it before last season, and ran to the conference finals. I’m not saying New Orleans won’t pay some playoff dues before contending for the title, but they deserve the second seed and will live up tot that expectation. Chris Paul dominated Jason Kidd all season, the only addition to a Dallas team that choked away the NBA Finals and a first-round series the previous two seasons. The Kidd trade did not provide the big lift a struggling Dallas team needed. Nowitzki injury aside, Dallas was inconsistent all season, with and without Kidd or Nowitzki. They have gaping holes on defense, in the post, and despite their mid-season acquisition, a mismatch at point guard in this series. Byron Scott would love to send Kidd crawling home four years after the outspoken point guard helped get Scott fired in New Jersey – NO in 6.

A heavyweight tussle made for the conference finals, not the first round. Forget the build up and hype, we all know the history between San Antonio and Phoenix by now, we know all the major players, buckle up for a classic. Amare Stoudemire played as good as anyone in the NBA after the Shaq acquisition freed him up on both ends of the court, the Spurs need to find a way to contain him off the pick and roll with Nash to slow down the Suns offensively. Duncan will play big, he always does in the playoffs, San Antonio needs a healthy Manu Ginobili. The lanky Argentine posted career numbers coming off the bench most of the season. A game changer on both ends of the floor, Ginobili makes the plays that win playoff games, a steal, a driving score in the fourth, he does it when it counts most. Expect a fierce battle, the stars will shine, Manu will rise – Spurs in 7.

Somehow, Houston managed to win 22 straight games, mostly without Yao Ming, surely earning Rick Adelman a few coach of the year votes. In this crazy season out West, Utah is seeded fourth, yet Houston holds home court, where they lost to Utah in a first round Game 7 last year. Despite averaging 28.5 ppg in the post-season, the inevitable question – Can Tracy McGrady win a playoff series – comes up, as if McGrady is the reason his team loses each year. Without Yao, McGrady showed signs of slowing down late in the season, hampered by a shoulder injury. Already missing point guard Rafer Alston for the first two games, Houston needs not only a healthy T-Mac, but possibly a herculean effort from McGrady to overcome a talented Jazz squad. Pencil in 3 almost automatic home wins for Utah, 37-4 in Salt Lake this year, Boozer and Williams will get at least one in Houston – Utah in 6.

After my don’t underestimate New Orleans speech, I give them little to no chance in the second round against San Antonio, to whom home court advantage makes little difference. LA and Utah has the makings of a classic, as do most series out West. When two teams are so closely matched, go with the best player on the court, in this case Kobe Bryant. On paper, you can argue the Spurs will lose each of these series, but they are the champs – five times to be exact – until beaten. Spurs in 6.

One question, will any team coming out of the West have enough in the tank when the Finals rolls around? The Spurs have an older team, having to go through Phoenix, New Orleans, and LA, in what expects to be three hard fought series may leave them out of gas in the finals. Detroit will have revenge on their mind, both on the critics who buried them after last season and on the Spurs who ended their chance to repeat in 2005. Lost in the Western Conference hype this season, nobody realizes how good Detroit and Boston actually are, the world will see in the finals – Detroit in 7.