Monday May 19th, 2008

With the excitement of Boston's electrifying 97-92 victory against Cleveland in Game 7 on Sunday still fresh in people's minds, it's easy to forget that there is another deciding game still left to be played in the second round.

And it should be a good one.

Unless Chris Paul and Tony Parker take it upon themselves to will their respective teams to victory (a possibility with Paul, an unlikelihood with Parker), Monday night's game between the Hornets and Spurs in New Orleans probably won't have the same type of one-one-one battle that Paul Pierce and LeBron James waged in Boston. But with the Spurs fighting to prolong their dynasty at least one more season and with New Orleans eager to prove to the world that its time is now, expect the same type of intensity in the Big Easy.

Here are four simple keys for Game 7 (followed by my prediction):

Despite having one of the NBA's best defensive centers in Tyson Chandler, New Orleans prefers to send waves of double teams whenever Tim Duncan catches the ball in the post. As a result, shooters like Michael Finley, Manu Ginobili and Parker are left wide open on the perimeter. That has been an advantage in San Antonio's three games at home, where the Spurs are shooting 49.6 percent. But their hot hands haven't traveled well, as they are hitting just 40.3 percent in New Orleans. The Spurs connected on 11-of-21 three-pointers in their Game 6 victory last Thursday. They will need more of the same if they hope for a similar result in Game 7.

Looking for a simple stat? The better third-quarter team has won every game of this series. San Antonio had the look of a champion in the third quarter in Game 6, outscoring the Hornets 20-12 to increase its seven-point halftime advantage to 15. But just two night earlier, the Spurs were on the wrong side of a 28-11 third-quarter score in the Bayou on their way to dropping Game 5. In three home games, the Hornets have outscored San Antonio 93-46 in the third, making it a crucial 12 minutes for both teams.

The Hornets' All-Star power forward has been practicing and saying the right things about how his back is 100 percent with "just about all of the soreness out of there," but is three days of rest enough to recover after that hard Robert Horry screen in Game 6? West has been a monster in this series, averaging 20.2 points and 9.3 rebounds (including two 30-point performances in New Orleans), and his presence is absolutely critical if the Hornets hope to even make Game 7 a close contest.

If West is limited, New Orleans' frontcourt options are rookie Julian Wright, Melvin Ely and Bonzi Wells. Not exactly appealing alternatives for coach Byron Scott.

"We feel pretty good that he would be ready, barring any crazy things or any setbacks," Scott said of West over the weekend.

I don't know what it is between Crawford and the Spurs. Late last season, Crawford was suspended indefinitely and banned from officiating in the postseason after a run-in with Duncan, who accused the veteran referee of challenging him to a fight during a game in Dallas. In Game 5 of this series, Popovich argued with Crawford over a delay-of-game call. During a heated discussion, Crawford put his finger in Popovich chest, which the Spurs' coach swiped away. I'm not much for conspiracy theories, but the sight of Crawford in New Orleans probably isn't a good sign for San Antonio.

San Antonio makes enough perimeter shots and becomes the first team to win a road game in the series. But it won't be easy, as the teams play a tight game for the first time in the second round. Spurs 99, Hornets 94

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