Thursday May 15th, 2008

In answer to your first question ... I don't know.

I don't know if the Hornets have what it takes to win in San Antonio on Thursday night and make their first Western Conference final. I don't know if they have the maturity to overcome the startling statistic that home teams have won 19-of-20 second-round games to date. I don't know if they can call upon their reserves to overcome what will be a vocal crowd at the AT&T Center, every bit as charged up as -- obvious metaphor alert! -- Bowie and Crocket back at the Alamo in 1836.

Of course, we know how that went for the home team.

The Spurs, predictably, will be slight favorites, both because they're the Spurs -- proud, experienced and intent on defending their championship -- and because of this home-court thing. It would be wise, incidentally, if someone in the league office underwent a full review of the playoffs to see if there are trends in officiating that might help explain the overwhelming domination of home teams. I'm not saying there are; I'm just saying it's worth exploring.

To the extent I have a theory about home-team domination, it's this: While we spent the regular season praising the NBA for the number of really good teams that took the floor, particularly in the West, there is no really great team. Great teams have those reserves of confidence to run out amid a hostile crowd, look at each other knowingly and say, All right, let's shut these people up.

The Hornets aren't there yet. But as I see it, they can prevail in San Antonio, where the Spurs have won 11 straight playoff games dating back to last season, if things go well in several of these areas:

• They blitz Tony Parker on pick-and-rolls and get the ball out of his hands as they did in the 101-79 Game 5 victory in New Orleans on Tuesday night. With all the talk about the Hornets' Chris Paul and the Jazz's Deron Williams upping their games in the postseason, Parker has done the same thing ... and he was the 2007 Finals MVP.

• They don't put Manu Ginobili on the foul line, where he's shooting 87.5 percent in the playoffs. If the Hornets do get the ball out of Parker's hands, Ginobili is going to have it much of the time, and nothing gets the crowd going like the Argentine's madcap drives to the hoop that end in "and-one" situations. They won't stop Ginobili from barreling into the lane, but forcing him into a couple of charges will change the complexion of the game.

• They get maximum effort, and maximum fouls, out of a three-headed defensive approach on Tim Duncan. Starting center Tyson Chandler said he would be fine despite a bruised left foot, but if he's not at full strength, he will need the assistance of Hilton Armstrong and Melvin Ely. Both are young players with the ability to keep Duncan reasonably in check and put him at the line (where he's shooting 59.6 percent in the postseason) when they have to.

I would expect Duncan to get to the line more anyway since Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, trying only to be helpful to the league's zebras, of course, noted that his captain shot only one free throw in Game 5, while the Hornets shot 13 free throws in the third quarter. For the Hornets, better that Duncan gets put at the line.

• Speaking of the third quarter, the Hornets must weather the storm and come out at least even. No matter what happens in the first half in Game 6, Popovich, a master motivator, will spend a few of his intermission moments reminding his team of what happened in the three games in New Orleans, where the Hornets outscored the Spurs in the third quarter by an incredible 93-46. (The Spurs, meanwhile, are plus-16 in the two third quarters at San Antonio.) Just matching San Antonio's intensity in the early minutes of the third would be a huge plus.

• Get David West going and don't worry about getting Peja Stojakovic going. You don't get a player going when ace defender Bruce Bowen is clamped on him, as he has been on Stojakovic in the last couple of games. When offenses try to do that, they often end up frustrated and Bowen's handsy, aggressive defense winds up being a huge factor. It's more important to establish West as a low-post threat (as he was in Game 5 when he had 38 points) and make the Spurs double-team him, so that Stojakovic will be more open on the perimeter.

Sound easy? Actually, none of it sounds easy, especially in San Antonio. And please remember that I said the Hornets could win, not will win.

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