Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Long and Winding Road: A Recap of the Spurs-Hornets Series Thus Far

Over the last few days several of my friends have asked me if the Spurs can go into New Orleans and beat the Hornets. Obviously my answer is yes they “can.” But what will bring that about is a more complicated question. As I said in my recap to game 6, I have found this to be one of the more “schizophrenic” series that the Spurs have ever participated in. 6 double-digit victories, five of which were blowouts. Its tough to look back at the ins and outs of the past 6 games and see any discernable pattern, aside from the consistent dominance of the home team. Tough, but not impossible. So I’m going to take a look back at the first 6 games and see if any prominent patterns arose.

Game 1: The Hornets make a statement

In some sense I think you can lump the first two games together, because it was only in the third game that we made the big changes that we have stuck with throughout the rest of the series. In the first game, the Spurs got to the hole infrequently, as well as lived and died by the long ball. Bowen's hot shooting kept us in it in the first half, but instead of using our outside shooting as an addendum to our ability to score in the paint we used it as a crutch. Shooting 57% from the free throw line didn’t exactly help either.

The Hornets, on the other hand, had a good shooting night. In particular Peja Stojakovic played very well. Paul oftentimes found him in transition and when open on the perimeter he barely ever missed. The Hornets were also decidedly more physical than the Spurs in game 1, and the whole game seemed to highlight their youth and athleticism. The Hornets dominated the boards, even on the offensive end of the ball, which was a point of frustration for me personally.

Also Ime Udoka didn’t get a lot of minutes, and you guys know how I feel about that.

All in all, the game was actually closer than the score suggested, but for me the Spurs relied far too much on their perimeter shooting, and paid the price once they lost their hot hand.

Game 2: The Spurs begin to worry

This game, although it ended with a similar score, had a very different feel to it. First of all, it felt like a more genuine blowout. At least the second half did. But the Spurs made some improvements despite the final score.

The biggest improvement for the Spurs came in our frontcourt. Take a look back at what I said in my recap about our frontcourt play:

“In game 1 Duncan, Thomas, Oberto, Udoka and Horry collectively had 8 points. In game 2 they had 38. We banged on the inside. A good adjustment.

In game 1 Chandler had 2 fouls. David West had 0. In game 2 Chandler had 5 fouls, West had 3. We banged on the inside, and drew fouls. Good adjustment.

Rebounds: Hornets 41-Spurs 40. Not bad. Plus we had more offensive boards than they did (9 to 7).”

The primary reason our improved post play didn’t produce a more favorable outcome was our continued reliance on outside shooting. We took 27 shots from beyond the arc and made 8. This is not the first time we had been overly reliant on perimeter shooting and it would not be the last.

The other critical, and I mean critical, distinction between this game and the following four is Bowen guarded Paul in game 2, not Stojakovic.

Game 3: The Spurs climb out of the hole

The Spurs unveiled a completely different game plan in game 3 and it worked. They moved Bowen onto Stojakovic and he subsequently went 2 of 7 from the field. Parker and Ginobili got to the hoop consistently and each put up 31 points. West had a strong game and showed a lot of offensive variety.

But really the Gordian knot of this whole series is Paul. In this game we went under the screen and chose not to switch but instead had our post players stay with the guy rolling to the basket (Tyson Chandler). This had varied results. Paul scored at will in the paint but we successfully denied him other options, leading the Hornets offense to increasingly hinge on his point production. I continue to believe this is the best way to stop (or at least limit) Paul.

Game 4: The Spurs make a statement of their own

This was the actually the biggest blowout of the series, although the final score didn’t show it (I think it’s the only game were a team flirted with the idea of going up by 30).

This was the game in which the “guard everyone else but Paul” strategy worked like a charm. The Spurs forced Paul to carry the team, and he did a good but not great job. We also saw great games out of Tim Duncan and Ime Udoka, as well as some positively prolific perimeter shooting.

You also saw a lot of combustibility out of West in this game. It had been their earlier, and it would come back again.

Game 5: David West goes nova

I thought this game unfolded very similarly to game 1. Aside from the Spurs being up at half and then losing by 20, a lot of other aspects of the game mimicked their first loss. Mostly, an over-reliance on perimeter shooting. It bailed us out in the first half, but in the second we much too easily shot from beyond the arc when their was still time and space to get to the rim.

The Hornets didn’t play very well in the first half either, but luckily David West had the game of his life, and that allowed the Hornets to get back on track in the second.

The Hornets also had their best game defensively against Duncan. I know it wasn’t Duncan’s “worst” game, but in those first two he was either sick or just playing poorly. In this game he was back in the groove and they harassed him into a bad game nonetheless, which I find more impressive. They did so by defending him one-on-one until he made a move to the basket in which instance they collapsed a second man hard one him. This is actually a pretty good strategy, although if Duncan is on his game the second man may be too little, too late.

The Spurs also chose to oftentimes switch on the pick and roll, as well as double Paul when he moved into the paint, both of which are crucial.

Game 6: The Spurs get the job done

A combination of solid perimeter shooting and lockdown third quarter D sent this series back to New Orleans for game 7. We also returned to what I clearly believe is the more effective way to guard Paul: Let him score, but take away his passing options. Our best games he has had 20-30 points, but less than 10 assists.

Again, West’s inability to remain calm in tough situations pushed a team teetering on the edge right over.

The Spurs also switch back and forth between Bowen guarding Peja and Manu guarding Peja, which will be of note in a second.

Looking forward to game 7:

We have seen teams go back and forth on a couple of adjustments, in particular defensive adjustments. Here are my thoughts on what will and won’t work in game 7.

Playing Duncan One-on-One: I think the Hornets need to double Duncan. Maybe not the second he touches the ball, but if he moves to the rim you need to collapse a man on him. If he makes the smart pass to the outside, so be it. The Spurs outside shooting his been too inconsistent and if anything it encourages them to take more shots from beyond the arc, which has been an important part of every Spurs loss this series. Obviously if the Spurs are draining it from 3-point land, make an adjustment, but I think they should come out doubling Duncan. I need not remind you that a 4 time NBA Champion and 3 time NBA Finals MVP plays very well in big games.

Bowen on Peja: As this series has gone on, and despite the success we have had putting Bowen on Peja, I have become more flexible regarding this matchup, not more solidified in my stance. Obviously in games 1 and 2 where Parker would end up guarding him was a nightmare, and when Parker, Manu, and Bowen are the Spurs backcourt, Bowen should be on Peja, Parker on Paul, and Manu on Peterson. But when Parker leaves the game, and Manu is running the point, we should shift Bowen onto Paul and Manu on to Peja. Stojakovic has been doing an increasingly better job of taking Bowen off the dribble, something he can’t do as easily against Manu. Manu is also a great lock and follow defender. But more importantly, Manu is a risk-taker on the defensive end of the ball and oftentimes goes for the steal, resulting in his either getting burned by a quick guy like Paul or committing a reaching foul. If Manu picks up a couple of quick ones, either at the start of the first or the third, it will put the Spurs in a bind.

Paul: It is critical that we continue take away Paul’s passing options, even if it means giving him space to roam in the paint. He will try his best to make us regret it, but he can’t do it alone. By taking away consistent passing options the Spurs induce stagnation in the rest of their scorers. Peja’s, Chandler’s, and many other Hornets’ ability to score is directly tied to Paul. West is the only one who can produce on his own, and we need to take advantage of that.

I also have some pretty concrete thoughts about what both teams should try to do on the offensive side of the ball:

Points in the paint: Both the Spurs and Hornets need to get points in the paint. The Spurs are at their best when Duncan is nailing the bank shot, and Ginobili and Parker are getting to the rim. If we get in a mode where we’re relying on outside shooting to keep us in the game, I will be concerned. Obviously a strong performance from Finley, Bowen, Udoka, and Ginobili from beyond the arc would put us over the top, but our main offensive focus needs to be slashing and scoring on the block, not finding open 3’s on the wing.

Same goes for the Hornets. This team looks most impressive offensively when Paul is scoring in the paint, Chandler is catching alley-oops and West is nailing mid-range jumpers. They look unimpressive when Pargo or Peterson are shooting from the outside. Initially Peja looked impressive but even in their game 5 victory, he has been unable to be as productive now that Bowen is on him. So I think their primary offensive imperative is to make safe, smart passes in the paint and create open, close shots.

Perimeter Shooting: I think neither of these teams is in a place to rely on its perimeter shooting. It has just been too spotty. Originally Peja was a sure thing from beyond the arc, but we’ve beaten that point to death. Keep an eye on how many 3-point attempts both teams are taking. I’d say a high number of attempts going into half shows will go hand in hand with an inability to follow through on my previous point.

Composure/Experience: For the most part, “experience” has not been a key factor in this series, at least not an obvious one. To a certain extent, the Spurs ability to keep their cool derives from a decade of post-season play, while many of these Hornets are playing in May for the first time. Obviously the guy to keep your eye on is West. I don’t even know if West is going to play (giving the importance of the game, I bet you he gives it a shot), but if he can’t remain calm out there, it could lead to unnecessary personal fouls, or even technical fouls, while possibly infecting the rest of the team with a certain unsteadiness. This game will be physical, and unlike games 1 through 6, I think it will be close. The Hornets needs to make sure that fouls late in the fourth, even if they are questionable calls, do not cause them to lose focus.

I’ve made many of those points before, but for the most part one or two of them get ignored (I say that like Popovich and Scott are rushing to read my every last word in order to glean some advantage, but something tells me that isn’t the case).

Anyways, I think this is going to be a great game. It has already been a great series. I’ll probably be back tomorrow with some other, more esoteric reflections in the import of game 7, but I hopefully I gave you enough to chew on for a while.

1 comment:

Sax Mann said...

I'm excited to watch this game later. Just thinking of it now makes my heart beat faster. I know deep down in my heart that the Spurs will outdo the Hornets in Game 7.