Sunday, May 11, 2008

Spurs' experience, smart play dominate Hornets in Game 4


The most telling sequence of Sunday night's 100-80 blowout win for San Antonio over New Orleans occurred during the third quarter.

Manu Ginobili had just made a falling-backward, one-handed runner in the lane while getting fouled when he was approached by teammate Michael Finley. After congratulating his teammate, Finley whispered something to Ginobili.

I can only guess what Finley said, but I've got a pretty good one — I think. That's because on San Antonio's next possession, Ginobili found a cutting Finley for an easy layup.

And the route continued.

What Finely must have said, I surmise, is that his defender was overplaying him, and he thought he could give a fake and then cut to the basket for an easy layup. And that's exactly what happened.

It was a microcosm of what happened throughout the game. The veteran, defending-champion Spurs knew what they needed to do every time down the court — and they executed. The Hornets, on the other hand, were a one-man show: Chris Paul did a lot of dribbling and scored his points, but his teammates appeared confused at times.

On one offensive possession, Tyson Chandler and Julian Wright looked at each other as if to ask, What are we doing out here?

It was a far cry from Games 1 and 2 in New Orleans, when the Hornets played like the team chock full of champions, not to mention guys who have been playing together for several years.

Of course, New Orleans still has home-court advantage in the knotted series. That shouldn't be forgotten in the immediate aftermath of the blowout. And only the Pistons have won a game this round on the road.

But besides Paul, they better wake up. Peja Stojakovic, David West, Morris Peterson and Co. looked lost on the court Sunday. On several occasions, West hesitated to take the midrange jumper that is usually his bread and butter.

Sunday's game was why most analysts and writers, including myself, picked New Orleans to bow out in the first round against Dallas. New Orleans played the part of the young, inexperienced team.

And the Spurs definitely looked like, well, the Spurs, never letting the Hornets get into the game thanks to flawless execution. Tim Duncan passed so deftly out of double teams, I mistook him for a point guard at times. And that resulted in the Hornets scrambling to find all the Spurs on the court.

That spelled trouble, considering Tony Parker and Ginobili are two of the NBA's best penetrating guards. It didn't even matter that San Antonio missed several wide-open 3-pointers, making just eight of 26 from behind the arc.

Perhaps the most telling stat in that thing you call a box score is that San Antonio registered 27 assists on 39 made shots. New Orleans, meanwhile, had just 12 assists to 13 turnovers.

That's unbelievable, considering Paul by himself usually dishes out a dozen A's himself.

Just as remarkable was Paul's meager five assists. The point guard made 10 of 16 shots and scored a game-high 23 points, but the Spurs clearly did exactly what they planned to do on defense.

They didn't overplay Paul, instead allowing him to take as many outside shots as he wanted. And they took away his teammates. For the first time all year, perhaps, Paul didn't find Tyson Chandler for an alley-oop dunk. And open shots were few and far between for the Hornets who shoot it best — specifically Stojakovic (3 of 9) and Peterson (2 of 8).

(By the way, Gregg Popovich deserves his own column for being the NBA's best coach; he doesn't get the credit he deserves simply because of the players he has.)

Now the question is how shaken the Hornets are. They unquestionably are capable of winning two more games, but everyone has to play his role. There's a basketball saying, "Role players play better at home." If that stands true, New Orleans will win the series.

But West better remember that he's a good shooter; Chandler has to return to making smart, aggressive plays instead of picking up his fifth foul in the third quarter; Stojakovic needs to work harder to get open where Paul can find him; and everyone else has to regain the looseness that allowed them to win the first two games.

Otherwise, it will be a sad ending to what's been a great season.

On the other side, don't expect veterans Finley, Bruce Bowen and others to forget what they're supposed to do for their team. They've been in their roles for years now, and they can't argue with the results.

And as Finley demonstrated, the experienced Spurs are always thinking and reacting on the court. Even in the aftermath of a positive play in a lopsided game.

On Sunday, that wasn't the case for New Orleans. And the result is a pressure-packed Game 5 in front of their home fans, who will attempt to wake them up.

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