The '07-08 San Antonio Spurs have played the '07-08 New Orleans Hornets nine times, squaring off on four occasions during the regular season and five more in their second round playoff series.
So what have they learned about their opponents?
Not a whole hell of a lot, apparently.
Every time we play these guys in The Big Easy, it's the same god damn game. The Spurs peak early in the second quarter, accumulating a lead somewhere between six and ten points and the Hornets grind it back to make it a one possession difference by the half. And then...
Well you know what happens then.
The jerseys remain the same in the second half. In fact the players certainly look to be the same gentlemen who just competed valiantly for 24 hard minutes up and down the floor. But clearly these are not the same men, on either side. All of a sudden the Spurs look as hapless, slow, unorganized, and uncoordinated as your local rec league team of geriatrics. The Hornets on the other hand look like the reincarnation of the "Bad Boy" Pistons, with Chris Paul channeling the spirit of Isiah Thomas and the whole squad playing physical, stifling, emotional team defense. It appears dirty, even thuggish at times, but the point is they play together, they work hard and they communicate, so it's not pointless, ineffective brutality the way some teams - like say the Nuggets - approach the concept of defense, which in their Neanderthal minds simply means fouling the other team really hard so they don't get lay-ups.
Three times the Spurs have tried to win a playoff game in New Orleans and three times they have failed, spectacularly. Despite their halftime leads, they weren't really in any of the games by the time the 4th quarter started. They weren't quite blowouts, but they were right on the fringe of becoming such and indeed the Nooch pulled away in the waning moments of all three. That none of the games was a gut-punching close loss like the ones we suffered (unjustly I might add) at Dallas in Games 3 and 4 in '06 is comforting and frustrating, all at once. While it's good for my heart and my blood pressure, not getting so angry during the games, it certainly doesn't make me feel any better, losing by 20 rather than two. A loss is a loss is a loss.
Sometime late in the regular season I outlined the Spurs formula for winning that fifth ring: Go 12-0 at home and simply win one out of four road games per playoff round. It might have sounded like a joke or an exaggeration at the time, but I'm telling you, I meant it. i recognized, as I'm sure most of us did, that this team just isn't as strong and deep offensively or defensively as past editions and they would need the breaks and the intangibles more than ever to win. Protecting home court would be paramount because the elite teams out there just aren't afraid anymore of the big bad San Antonio Spurs, and certainly not at home.
They're out of chances now. The Spurs get only one more shot to get this right. If postseason experience means anything, if pressure has any effect on young players, these commonly held bits of sporting wisdom will show up in Game 7. Not only would the Spurs have the edge in experience and mental toughness but thanks to an odd scheduling quirk fatigue won't be an issue as the game wouldn't be played until Monday night, four days from now. Pop could even - heaven help us - get a couple of practices in the interim.
But first things first. We are down 3-2. We are playing tonight. There is a chance, a punchers chance, that this will be the last game our guys play this season. It could all go poof!, just like that. If that comes to pass there will be time for mourning and grieving, but not too much I hope. At the end of the day we still have to remember we've got four titles in a decade and that bitching about having not acquired any more makes us all sound like a bunch of whiny, spoiled Yankees fans.
What do the Spurs have to do to prolong their season? At this point, having played each other nine times, it's not exactly brain surgery: These teams know each other inside and out. It's all about execution, desire and in game adjustments. We've pretty much figured out how to shut down Peja. David West however, we have no answers for. Both Fab and Kurt have had a miserable time forcing him baseline and that had to do, in part, with the atrocious way the team has played the pick-and-roll. Both guys pack it in on Paul on the drive and leave West open for 17 footers, again and again and again. I don't really know how we solve this problem. If we don't send two guys with Paul, he gets easy lay-ups (thanks partly to him being allowed to take an extra step and clear off with his off arm the whole series). Maybe we have to blitz Paul with two guys before he even gets the play started, the way Hornets do with Manu. Maybe we have to defend the play with a third man and hope that West can't make the right pass to the open guy. What else can we do?
Offensively I'm more concerned. It starts with Duncan and he simply has to be more aggressive and decisive. The way he let Joey Crawford take him out of the game was disappointing, to put it lightly. He got the opportunity he's wanted all series long; to go against Tyson Chandler one-on-one, and he didn't handle it well at all. In fact, at times even David West guarded him singlehandedly and was successful. Tim has to take it to the basket hard and make them pay, that's all there is to it. All he has to do is score a few times, put Chandler in foul trouble and it opens up the whole game (and lane) for us. At the least if forces the Nooch into doubling him again and gives us open shots.
And Tony has to be much, much better. For a second there I really thought he turned the corner and had become the consistent, elite player we've been waiting for, but Game 5 was definitely a setback. He was tentative from the start and his decision making left a lot to be desired. I realize it's a lot to ask of him, but if he doesn't play Chris Paul to at least a draw, we can't beat these guys. I think it's pretty telling that the point guard who finished with more assists so far is 5-0 while the one who has scored the most is 2-3. We need scoring Tony AND passing Tony. We need him to be a star.
Finally we need Manu to bring it. He was a solid B+ in the first half and probably a D- in the second. He was our best player of the big three in Game 5, but that's really not saying a whole lot. We've all waited, patiently, for his three point stroke to return and it just hasn't. But again, what can he do? The shots he's getting are open and in rhythm. For most of the year an open Manu three was about as money as a Manu free throw. Now he's hitting like a third of the open ones and almost none of the contested ones. The answer, just like with Timmy is for him to be more aggressive and more decisive, to drive to the basket before the defense can set and double. The occasional give-and-go or back cut would be nice as well. Mostly we need Manu to play like he's desperate and he hates these guys. For the most part, he hasn't. He's kind of stuck in this netherworld right now where he hasn't been their best player in any of the wins and hasn't been their worst in any of the losses. In an odd way he's been the most consistent of the big three, but the problem is he's swung between "good" and "bad" as opposed to "excellent" and "awful." We need one brilliant performance out of him, either this game or next, to pull this series out.
I think the Spurs will win today, I really do. What it will mean, besides that they have the pride not to have their season end on their court, I'm not sure. For us to mull over all the philosophy and drama of a Game 7 there has to first be a victory in Game 6. The fans can afford to take it lightly, but the players most certainly cannot. We're too good to lose to these guys in six.