No Manu, No Win

Forget the non-foul call on Brent Barry in the final seconds – seriously, when was the last time you saw that call made in that situation – the Spurs role players and spark plug lost this game. That they stayed as close as two points midway into the fourth quarter amazed me way more than the fact they lost. Yes, Manu Ginobili did actually play in this game before the end of the fourth quarter. If you missed him, you weren’t alone. Whether hampered by injury, or having a bad night, the Argentine was a non-factor, scoring two points the first 3 1/2 quarters of the game, finishing with only seven points.

The usual suspects, Parker and Duncan, played solid games. Barry had the playoff game of his life, almost single-handedly accounting for the team’s 3-pt production. As for the rest of the team – in a word, pathetic. How many games do you win when two starters, Michael FInley and Fabricio Oberto in this case, fail to score. Robert Horry officially traded in the Big Shot Bob moniker for No Shot Robby. Poppovich was forced to stick with his top three and the hot Barry almost the entire second half to erase the Lakers lead. By the fourth quarter, the Spurs looked winded and old.

Unlike the Spurs role players, LA received solid contributions across the board. Lamar Odom scored 8 of his 16 in the fourth, and grabbed nine rebounds in the game. Down the stretch, it appeared that Odom could score at will, or at least get to the basket whenever he wanted, no matter who was guarding him. That’s the type of scary talent he has. It’s the inconsistency, like his Game 3 performance that prevents him from becoming a star. Derek Fischer recovered from a poor outing to play a solid game, combining with backup
point guard Jordan Farmer for only two turnovers in 47 combined minutes. Not flashy, just solid, fundamental playoff basketball.

Almost unnoticed, Pau Gasol played decent defense on Duncan for the first time all series. The Big Fundamental shot 10-26 from the field, bothered by Gasol’s length and extra aggression. He still dumped in 29 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, but was not much of a factor late in the game, and had to work much harder for those points than the first three games. On offense, Gasol only took seven shots to score his ten points. The unselfish big man finally dug his hells in, grinding inside with Duncan, fighting for position and forcing Duncan to commit fouls. Then adeptly, when his shot was not there, he setup his teammates. Not many 7-footers notch 6 assists.

All this without mentioning Kobe. You assume those 28 points from Bryant almost every night. Everyone is investigating the zero foul shots – first postseason game since 2004 without a free throw. It’s no surprise, he didn’t attack the hole often, mostly settling for jumpers. His big stat was ten rebounds. LA killed San Antonio on the glass, especially the offensive boards. Poppovich said as much in his timeout huddle that aired on TNT. Allowing second chance opportunities build leads and kill comebacks. Each time the Spurs made a defensive stop and the Lakers grabbed an offensive board, more time off the clock, more energy spent on defense, less momentum. A vicious cycle. Detroit suffered the same fate in Game 3 against Boston and never came back. San Antonio tied the game five times, but never took the lead.

Up against the wall, the defending champs need to pull a rabbit out of their hat to win this series. Thursday night is shaping into the next step for this Lakers team. The Spurs are never dead until they lose four times, but the casket is in the ground.

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.

“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.

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.