Tonight the Spurs and Hornets head back to New Orleans to see if a little bit of home cookin' is what the Hornets need to get back on track. Although obviously in the recently inaugurated best of 3 series, every game is important, this is a crucial moment for this Hornets team.
I've talked at length about the psychological questions encircling the Hornets. I originally questioned the level of poise and focus they could maintain in a long, drawn out series with a team as even-keeled as the Spurs, and as the series has progressed they have only given me more reason to doubt. Several Hornets, including Paul and West, have shown a proclivity towards getting frustrated, and although Paul can sometimes channel his anger into productivity, it seems to make West unravel. We've seen them be chippy when blowing guys out. We've seen them be chippy when getting blown out. What we haven't seen is how they react in a close game. Although I believe that Popovich has made some adjustments that Scott just may not be able to counter (although I must admit I don't feel like he tried that hard in game 4), all the advantages that come with being back in NO will ensure that the Hornets at worst lose a close game. I don't envision a repeat of game 4 on their own floor. I will be very intrigued to see how the Hornets mentally respond to the Spurs, whose performance in game 4 suggests to me a readiness to go for the jugular.
The obvious flip-side of this is will the Hornets be able to respond tactically. The Spurs have gotten a lot of mileage out of the "stop everyone other than Paul" approach. If the Hornets are going to retain home-court advantage, they are going to need to figure out ways to get other guys involved more often. Despite how strangling Bowen's defense can be, it seems like it would be easier to get Stojakovic more shots than it would West. The Spurs have done a good job closing in on West in the paint, even when that meant allowing Paul space to move. It would seem to me that a number of conceivable screen scenarios on the wing could really open up space for Peja. Although, if it were that easy Bowen wouldn't have been on the NBA's All-Defensive team so many years in a row.
To be honest, I think a lot of this will come down to who shoots better from the perimeter. Bowen, Finley, Udoka, Barry, and Ginobili have all stepped up and made shots from the outside here or there in this series. In the first two games Stojakovic was an assassin, but since Bowen went into lock-down mode on him the chance that he puts up big numbers seems spotty at best. If Pargo or Peterson can step up and make some shots it would possibly force the Spurs to move away from a defensive strategy which has successfully limited the Hornets second and third options. Really this is just a roundabout way of saying the Hornets role players need to step up if their gonna win this one, which is not the most insightful comment I have ever made.
The Spurs, on the other hand, seem to be in a pretty good place. Obviously some solid perimeter shooting would go along way towards heading home with a chance to close this thing out. But really the most important thing is for Parker to remain aggressive. If he puts on his game-face the man can really play phenomenally. But every once and awhile Parker decides he's not gonna attack the basket or trust his mid-range jumper. I would like him to do both.
Although I want Ginobili to aggressive, I also want him to play smart. Sometimes he gets excited or anxious or something and he starts to turn the ball over, either by dribbling into a double team on the wing or making a bad pass across the middle. If he can continue to be aggressive while limiting the collateral damage of that aggressiveness I will be very happy.
Ed. Note: Looking back, my last paragraph was a strange combination of disgustingly obvious and about nothing. I think I used up all my creative juices ripping on the Celtics last night. Either way, what I really want is for Ginobili to be the 2 guard, as opposed to a nebulous combo guard that he sometimes becomes when Parker isn't in. When Ginobili has the freedom to move off the ball, rather than start with the ball, he consistently catches it in a place where he's prepared to score, one way or another. Duncan's improved passing in this series has been a big part of him not merely getting the ball, but getting it in the right spot.
As far as Duncan is concerned, I feel pretty confident he will have a good game. Whether the Hornets double him or not, he has increasingly been making well-timed, strong moves to the hole or well-timed, well-placed passes back out to the wings. He just needs to be himself and it'll be fine.
Also, my obligatory note to Popovich: Play Ime Udoka.