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May 12, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Sunday's Games

by Kevin Pelton

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On Sunday, both Western Conference home teams claimed victory to even their series at two games apiece. While the Utah Jazz held serve, the San Antonio Spurs did something more--they put the New Orleans Hornets on the defensive. These now become best-of-three series with a trip to the Western Conference Finals on the line.

Spurs 100, Hornets 80

Bill Simmons has written about the video-game phenomenon he calls "The No F-ing Way Game"--when the CPU decides you've done too well and need to be brought down with a blowout loss in which it seems nothing goes right. There's a real-life equivalent, and it happened to the New Orleans Hornets in Game Four of their series against the San Antonio Spurs. For 48 long minutes of basketball, it seemed as if everything went right for the Spurs and nothing went right for the Hornets.

In Game Two, San Antonio Head Coach Gregg Popovich appeared to be searching for an answer, briefly employing a zone defense and putting five reserves on the floor to start the fourth quarter. That situation reversed itself in Game Four, with Byron Scott searching for a spark by going extremely small early in the third quarter. Nothing could change New Orleans' fortunes on this night.

At the end of the first quarter, the Spurs seemed to be in control of the game, but held just a two-point lead on the scoreboard. The difference on the scoreboard ultimately caught up to the difference on the floor, with San Antonio pounding the Hornets 31-20 in the second quarter.

A lot of attention will be paid to New Orleans' success double-teaming Tim Duncan. While Duncan again did a good job of finding the open man--or the man who passed the ball to the open man--the Spurs actually didn't shoot the ball all that well from downtown, hitting eight threes in 26 attempts. Bruce Bowen and Manu Ginobili combined to shoot 3-of-14 from downtown, with reserves Michael Finley (2-for-4) and Ime Udoka (3-for-5) doing most of the damage. What the Spurs were able to do for the first time in this series was exploit the Hornets' defensive rotations to get open looks in the paint. San Antonio moved the ball well enough to get 27 assists on 39 buckets.

Duncan was perfectly content to keep the ball at times, and he shot 10-of-13 from the field when he did, en route to 22 points, and adding 15 rebounds and four blocks in what was easily his best performance of this series. As well as Duncan played, however, it was Tony Parker who was the key to the Spurs' offense. From the opening tip, Parker controlled the game, knowing just when to attack and when to pull back and slow down. Parker scored 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting and handed out eight assists, but the number that best described Parker's play was the Spurs outscoring the Hornets by 25 points in the 32 minutes he was on the floor.

Meanwhile, Parker's opposite number, Chris Paul, looked human for the first time in this series. Paul scored a team-high 23 points, but the Spurs kept him from beating them with the pass. Paul handed out just five assists and turned the ball over four times--as many as he had in the first three games against the Spurs. Besides Paul, the only Hornets player to get anything going on offense was Hilton Armstrong, who scored nine points in 12 minutes of extended garbage time, to use Marv Albert's parlance.

I'm not sure how much of it is attributable to Bruce Bowen's defense, but Peja Stojakovic surely did not play like the fearless gunner who led the Hornets in their first seven games of the playoffs. Stojakovic missed two easy looks early and never got it going, missing six of his nine shot attempts. David West was little better, shooting 4-of-15 from the field. Starting center Tyson Chandler did not even try a shot but was not a factor in terms of rebounding and defense. Chandler finished with more fouls (five) than rebounds (four).

To some extent, it's difficult to evaluate a game like last night's because it appeared impossible for the Hornets to turn around the momentum once the Spurs and their home crowd got going. It's also tough to know what to make of a San Antonio team that has looked so wildly different at times during this postseason. The Spurs aren't an enigma in terms of effort, but when the team has played well--and Game Three of the Phoenix series also qualifies as a "No F-ing Way" game, the players have looked different, much younger and more athletic than in the team's lopsided losses. That said, it's looking more and more like Tim Duncan's Game One illness kept the Spurs from making that game competitive, which bodes very well for San Antonio going forward.

Game Five looms as a pivotal game in this series. Obviously, that's true of any best-of-seven tied at two, but in this case it's hard to imagine the Hornets countering San Antonio's momentum were they to lose for a third straight game. Having a raucous crowd behind them should help the Hornets match or beat the Spurs' energy after looking slower to the ball in Game Four, but Scott needs to tighten things up on defense and find a way to get Stojakovic going to ensure that the home team remains perfect in this series.

Jazz 123, Lakers 115 (OT)

Kobe Bryant won the NBA's Most Valuable Player award in large part because of the perception that he trusted his teammates this season more than at any point since the Lakers broke up the Bryant/Shaquille O'Neal unit that won three championships early this decade. For the first time all year, that new attitude was challenged Sunday.

Clearly less than 100 percent because of a sore back that forced him to conduct his postgame press conference standing up, Bryant was happy to set up his teammates in the fourth quarter. That worked to perfection late in the game. Down 12 with four minutes to play, the Lakers scored on their next six possessions, including four three-pointers and a Bryant three-point play; Bryant assisted on all five other scores. Add in a technical free throw and the Lakers put up 18 points in 3:05 to rally and tie the game.

Once the game went to an extra session, Bryant's mentality changed. He took six shots on the Lakers' first seven overtime possessions, but made only one. By the time Bryant missed with 30 seconds left, all Utah needed to do was make its free throws to claim victory.

In a game in which he wasn't able to get to the basket, attempting as many threes as free throws (10 apiece, three of the latter coming when he was fouled late in OT attempting a triple), it would have been an ideal time for Bryant to defer to his teammates, several of whom were coming up big. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom both posted double-doubles, combining for 49 points and 23 rebounds. Yet between them, they took only one shot in the first four-and-a-half minutes of overtime.

With Bryant having a tough time getting to the basket, the Jazz was able to reverse the free-throw differential that had marked the series. Through the first three games, the Lakers attempted 52 more free throws than Utah did and averaged 42 attempts per game. In Game Four, they took 25 foul shots while Utah got to the line 45 times and outscored them by 23 points from the line.

After a big Game Three, Carlos Boozer reverted to his previous postseason form, shooting 5-of-15 from the field. Deron Williams picked up much of the slack, scoring 29 points on 9-of-13 shooting and handing out 14 assists in his best effort of this series.

Utah also took advantage of a strong effort from its bench, which tallied 39 points. Sasha Vujacic was solid off the bench for the Lakers, but Jordan Farmar had his second straight off night. Farmar missed both of his shot attempts and did not have an assist in 19 minutes of action--the Lakers were an amazing -19 with him on the court. Phil Jackson might have to consider increasing Derek Fisher's minutes or potentially even using Vujacic at the point if Farmar can't get it going in Game Five.

The unusual thing about this series is that, because both the Lakers and Jazz have such well-defined systems established by their coaches, adjustments are secondary at best for both teams. The only major adjustment worth watching in this series has been how Utah has defended Bryant. Andrei Kirilenko got the assignment down the stretch yesterday, but that seemed to have less to do with Bryant's performance than with the back injury. This series has come down to execution and home-court advantage.

Looking ahead to Game Five, the key questions will be Bryant's health and how he integrates himself into the Lakers' offense. Despite Bryant's 10 assists, the Lakers had but 20 as a team on 46 field-goal attempts, the second consecutive game they've had one of their lowest assist rates of the season. The Lakers need to get back to sharing the basketball and keeping it moving, their recipe for success all year long. If not, Utah is more than capable of stealing a game in Los Angeles.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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