Was there ever a doubt?
You knew the Spurs were gonna step up. You knew it. They have too much pride, too much experience, and yes, too much depth, to lose to a two man team. In retrospect, the only surprising thing about the series was that it took seven games. Blame Tim's flu. Blame Pop not figuring out at the beginning that Peja must be eliminated from the equation. Blame Joey Crawford. Blame the perimeter shooters for bricking wide open three after wide open three in the second halves of the first three road games.
Were the Hornets scary? Hell yes they were scary. They were probably a better squad than any of the four we played last year on our way to the title. But ultimately I think what made them imposing were a couple of factors that seemed more important at the time than they really were.
1. They got off to that 2-0 lead. Yes, that made everyone very nervous. But we led both games at half (as we wound up doing six of seven) even with Duncan clearly not himself and Peja going off. Let's be real about this one. Home court advantage is real. It is a factor. Winning on the road in the playoffs is difficult against good teams. When you start off a series on the road (not something the Spurs have done a lot of in the Big Three Era) sometimes being on the wrong end of 2-0 happens. But despite the history of the thing, I never for one second thought we were done. Not all 2-0s are the same. You have to factor in all those pitiful 7 and 8 seeds that go into that 94%. We were in both games, despite being at a physical and tactical disadvantage.
2. We finally faced a point guard more dangerous/athletic than Tony. Don't underestimate this. One of the reasons the Spurs have been so successful over the years is that going into a series they knew that their point guard was faster and could get more lay-ups than the other team's point guard. We had the athletic mismatch there. Not with New Orleans though. Tony finally met his match with Paul, a guy who could stay with him, step for step, plus they were doubling Timmy to take him out, so it took us a bit to figure out how to attack these guys. I think by putting Bowen on Peja, Pop sent a message to the team: The Hornets don't have more good players than we do. Their best scorer just happens to play point guard. He's still one of only two guys that can create his own shot. Once the Spurs figured out that they're not dealing with an All-Star team here and that the Hornets had the same weaknesses every other team has, they got their collective groove back.
3. The Game 5 loss. A lot of people wrote the Spurs' epitaph when they dropped Game 5 - convincingly - to go down 3-2 for the series. Whenever a series is 2-2, the team that wins the fifth game has an overwhelming edge, even more so when they have home court. But again, I don't think every 3-2 is the same. Look at the Spurs situation when they were down 2-0 realistically. They knew they had to win four out of five. It would've been wildly optimistic, given how good the Hornets are, to expect San Antonio win four in a row. The more manageable scenario to ask of the guys, is to not look at the task at hand as a needing to go on a four game winning streak. Instead break it into two doable clumps - two two game winning streaks. Win two, take a breather, win two. If I told you after Game 2 that the Spurs would win 4-3 and asked you to guess which game we'd lose, everyone would've said Game 5; it's the only logical choice.
Anyway, about the game itself, it certainly was no beauty. Game 7s rarely are. Honestly though, anyone that's upset that Manu shot 6-19 or Tim shot 5-17 or Tony shot 7-17 can just cram it. Some people just don't understand the psychology of a Game 7 between two great teams. The pressure is immense and the defensive intensity is unparalleled. There is no such thing as an easy basket. The teams have to fight for every inch.
You think this game was ugly? Go look at the box score of our Game 7 Finals win vs. the Pistons. 81-74. We, the winning team, scored one less point there than the Hornets did on Monday. Pray tell you tell me who had a pretty line against Detroit besides Plainview and Roho. Tony scored 8 points, shot 3-11 and had to frequently be subbed with Brent Barry because he was petrified. Tim Duncan shot 10-27 and he was lauded as a postseason hero and Finals MVP afterward. Game 7s aren't easy, people. And this time it was on the road.
But yes, The Big Three struggled. Mightily so. And one could argue that they were bailed out by the role players: Kurt, Fab, Fin, Ime and Robert. Without their efforts we'd surely be fishing right now.
That is one train of thought.
Me? I'm thinking it's about fucking time they did something. Not to sound ungrateful, but let's call a spade a spade for a minute. If these guys played better in the regular season, not only would we have had home court for this series, but in the upcoming one as well. Also, it's not like the six three pointers that Fin, RoHo and Ime hit came as a result of them breaking guys down off the dribble and then hitting step back bombs. No, they were all wide open shots created by - YOU GUESSED IT - the big three. As open as our shooters were all series, me, you or Matthew could've hit a couple with enough attempts. Hell, even Jannero Pargo canned a couple eventually.
Besides, the story of the game was the Spurs defense. Offensively we learned nothing in Game 7. We were still the same crappy ice-cold shooting second half team we were in Games 1,2, and 5 and only managed 40 points, and that's with Manu's freebies in desperation time. I think the whole team got maybe five lay-ups the whole game (two for Tony, one for Tim, Ime, and Kurt). Defense is what won it for us and we shut down the Hornets by clamping down the paint, (except for the occasional lob to Chandler) rotating out to their shooters on threes, and keeping them away from the charity stripe. The disparity in free throws and threes was the difference. And of course, our rebounding was huge,except for that one horrifying memorable sequence late in the 4th when the Hornets took five shots in one possession with Pargo burying the fifth to make it a three point game.
Pop did a lot of things out there to keep the Hornets guessing and on their toes. Every few minutes he would change up the defense. Sometimes Tony was on Paul. Sometimes Bruce. Sometimes Oberto would take West, sometimes it'd be Tim. We gave them a full court press to start off the second half, just to mix it up and get the guys moving so they wouldn't be sluggish. We played their pick-and-roll a variety of ways, sometimes ambushing Paul, sometimes backing off. Really the only thing that seemed to utterly confuse us is when Byron Scott gave Pargo the ball in the 4th quarter - using Paul almost as a decoy - and let him run the show. Nothing else was working for them and for whatever reason, Tony had a hell of a time with Pargo in the 4th. But we held on.
While we had a lot of heroes in Game 7 (all nine guys who played contributed in some fashion, at both ends) you'd have to say that the unsung star of the game for the Spurs was Peja Stojakovic. God was he terrible. He finished 3-11 and about half of his attempts were awful, contested, forced shots. He choked, simple as that. Peja was so frustrated whenever Bruce was guarding him that whenever somebody else like Manu or Ime took a turn, he immediately chucked one up if he got even a crack of daylight, regardless of how far from the basket he was or who else was open. It's never a good thing when the best thing you can say about Stojakovic's night was his defense on Manu, and even that wasn't all that good.
Also, I just want to take a moment to point out, again, that Chris Paul, in addition to being a wonderful basketball player, is a classless bitch punk. He took a lot of cheap shots at our guys this game and again the zebras seemed to look the other way and the broadcasters (Marv Albert and Reggie Miller, naturally) ignored the Golden Boy altogether. In the 3rd quarter while forcing a turnover from Finley, Paul swung his left arm behind the play and hit Fin on the side of the face. On purpose. Look at the film. In the 4th, while scrambling for a loose ball with Ginobili, he basically punched Manu repeatedly in the face until the ref blew a whistle. He hit him clean two, three times. Both of his desperation fouls late, his fifth and sixth, were also rougher than need be. And of course, he didn't shake anyone's hands after the game and made a bee line for the tunnel. Bee line, get it? Ha.
As for our series MVP, while this round wasn't as easy to pick as the last one, where Tony just discombobulated the Suns, objectively you'd have to give it to Ginobili. He didn't shoot a great percentage, and he treated the paint like it was Chernobyl for much of the series, but he led or tied for the team lead in scoring in four of the games and led or tied in assists in five of the games. He averaged a team high 21.3 points and 6.0 assists and the former is the most he's scored in any series since the Western Conference Finals against Phoenix in '04-'05 (though he put up the exact same avg, also in seven games, against the Mavs in '05-'06) and the latter is a career playoff high. Again, his shooting percentage wasn't great, but you have to factor in how many three point attempts he had, due to how the Hornets were shutting down the paint, and making 40% from three is like making 60% from two. But yes, I agree with Matthew that he'll have to be better against the Lakers.
They all will.
When the game was over Charles Barkley called the Spurs "cockroaches" as in, they always find a way to survive, no matter what. He said it like it was a novel concept but honestly, my BFF Manolis beat him to it by years.
Ever seen the Italian soccer team? Every World Cup, every Euro tournament, it's the same thing.They're not flashy, they don't have the high scoring forwards or that stud midfielder like Zinedine Zidane who makes the game look so easy. They drop one of their early group games and the experts say they're done. But Italy always comes back, always survives as one of top two teams in their group to advance to the knock-out stages, and then they methodically keep advancing. By playing defense. By having role players step up. And yes, by flopping at opportune times. Almost always Italy makes the final. "They're fucking cockroaches, those bastards" Manolis said dismissively in 2006, though he pronounced it "cock-a-roach-es" to get me angry. "You can't get rid of them."
So there you have it, Team Italy, our brothers from another mother. Marco Materazzi, a no-name defenseman for them, became a World Cup hero because he not only scored a header goal off a corner kick against France in the '06 Final, but he successfully got Zidane riled up enough to get ejected from the game, headbutting Materazzi for suggesting that he slept with Zidane's sister. Sounds a bit like Horry's hip check on Steve Nash leading to the S.T.A.T. suspension, huh? The Cockroaches, I like the sound of that. You can't get rid of us, no matter how much the TV executives and the media try.
And all the suits will certainly have their fingers crossed as we face the league's showcase team, the Lakers. For now I choose to believe that we'll get a fair shake from the zebras. If the fix was in Phoenix would be playing L.A. right now for the Shaq-Kobe hype bullshit. If the fix was in Bryant the M.V.P. would be squaring up against his heir apparent in Paul. If the Spurs can make it this far, maybe the league isn't the WWF after all, no matter what the stereotype is.
I for one have a lot of confidence. The Hornets were a much better defensive team than the Lakers. Chandler is a beast in the middle. Their guys communicate well and really jam the paint. Byron Scott gets them to compete hard in their end. The Lakers don't do this. They trust themselves to win games on the other end. I expect Duncan to destroy either Gasol or Odom one-on-one, and he should have ample opportunity since Big Chief Triangle doesn't believe in doubling much. And like Matthew I totally think Tony has to blow by Derek Fisher time and again. Tony has no excuse to not own that match-up. He doesn't have to do anything on defense buy stay with him on the three point line. Fisher will not dribble, he will not penetrate, and he will not run the pick and roll. All he'll do is float on the perimeter. Tony cannot leave him. CANNOT.
The X-Factor as always will be Manu. He shot terribly against L.A. all year but may not have been fully healthy in any of the games. In one memorable game he was the best player on the court despite shooting 3-16. I don't think Kobe will be on him much unless it's close and late. Most of the time it'll be Walton, Radmanovic, Vujacic, etc. I'm not really worried about his individual defender. The screener gets that guy out of the way anyway. I want to see how aggressive Ginobili will go to the paint. I don't think he'll get like seven open three point attempts like last series. On defense he'll have his work cut out for him because the Lakers can post him up with multiple guys. There'll be a lot of Tinyball this series and he, Ime and Fin have to hold their own and rebound.
I'll tell you this much: I believe. With their eighth playoff win the Spurs did more than get by the Hornets. They crossed their proverbial title threshold, the way Moonlight Graham became Doctor Archibald Graham once and for all once he stepped over the 1st base line in "Field of Dreams." Every time The Big Three have won eight playoff games, they've gone on to win the title. Like they say in those stupid split head commercials that run all the time, they know they're close now. They can smell it.
When Craig Sager asked Manu after Game 7 if he'd like to stay as a starter and comfortable there or whether he'd rather go back to the bench, Manu replied, "I'm comfortable with winning, whatever the team needs..." etc. And really, that's the Spurs attitude in general - They're comfortable with winning. They're used to this environment, this pressure. You can beat them once, twice, or even three times, but you can't get rid of them for good. They looked awfully comfy on the road in New Orleans on Monday, didn't they?
P.S. I hate to be self-promoting, but in case anyone cares, here's the link to my last radio appearance, on ESPN Radio, 710 AM in Los Angeles on The Steve Mason show. It was recorded the day of Game 7 and the host, a big time Spurs hater was positive the Hornets would win. We had a good give and take and they invited me back for Wednesday and Friday, 2:25 p.m. Pacific time. It'll be fun to rub it in his face a little. Again, thanks to Matthew for making it possible for me.
P.P.S. I'm sorry I called you a rotting corpse, Fin.