Although the home crowd and the three wins at home convinced more than a few that the Hornets would be headed to L.A. on Wednesday, the Spurs did what they do best: shut out the distractions and just play smart, clutch basketball. Tim Duncan(right) steadied the ship early with an eight-point first quarter as the rest of his teammates shot poorly. Manu Ginobili overcame a 1-for-6 start from the floor to explode for 11 points late in the second quarter. And their defense put its foot down in the second half. The formula wasn't new, but to execute it in Game 7 as if it were Game 1 is a testament to a mindset no team in the league possesses.
The downside of experience may be that your legs don't bounce back as fast, but it also means you've seen it all. Like a 12-point Hornets run that not only gave Chris Paul and Co. a 37-36 lead, but also revved up a crowd that had grown increasingly quiet with each Spurs basket. How does a team with four trophies in the last nine years respond? How about with a three from a previously ice-cold Ginobili? How about a driving hoop by Tony Parker? How about working the ball into Duncan for a tough turnaround jumper? And then, for emphasis, how about two more Ginobili three-pointers to rebuild an 11-point lead and quiet the crowd once again? That's the type of counterpunch that crushes a young team's spirit in the type of game where emotion is crucial to an inexperienced contender. And, indeed, the Hornets never led the game again.
It's easy to forget how far these Hornets have come in just one season in the wake of a Game 7 loss, but had this team found a reliable scoring option outside of Paul and David West, it might not be in the wake of anything. Wait, wasn't that supposed to be Peja Stojakovic's role? After a brief flurry of scoring in the second quarter, Peja was done for the night, a toothless performance similar to his Game 7 failings with the Kings. New Orleans has a bright future, indeed, but it also has a need for the type of scorer who doesn't disappear in the biggest moments. Until Peja proves he can come through when needed most, the Hornets will continue to have that need.
Every team shortens its rotation at this time of year; the difference for the Spurs is that the selected few who come off Gregg Popovich's bench at crunch time hit multiple threes, like Robert Horry and Michael Finley each did in Game 7. They grab six rebounds and set key picks, like Kurt Thomas did. They grab timely offensive rebounds and steal passes to end scoring runs, like Ime Udoka did. In short, they place the bow on the Spurs' biggest wins. They did so again Monday against a New Orleans club who could only counter with the bombs-away approach of Jannero Pargo, whose scoring was welcome, but whose lack of much else wasn't.
The three-pointers will top the highlight shows, but the Spurs won this game the old-fashioned way, with defense and rebounding. After holding the Hornets to 42.9 percent from the field in the first half, New Orleans emerged from its locker room at halftime to brick 12 of the 17 shots in the third quarter. The Hornets bounced back in the fourth, hitting their first seven shots, but an Udoka steal and some hasty shooting brought the run of success to an end.
The Western Conference finals offers all manner of intriguing matchups, which SI.com's Marty Burns will cover in detail Tuesday, but one matchup that likely won't get as much attention is that between Phil Jackson and Popovich. Not only have these two coaches matched wits in many a prior series, but they also have an alliance (in Pop's case) or a rivalry (in Jackson's case) with Larry Brown. And finally, they have a deal for Pau Gasol between them, a deal which prompted Popovich to proclaim, "What they did in Memphis is beyond comprehension. There should be a trade committee that can scratch all trades that make no sense. I just wish I had been on a trade committee that oversees NBA trades. I'd like to elect myself to that committee. I would have voted no to the L.A. trade." Oh yeah, these Western finals are going to be fun.
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