Spurs 91, Hornets 82
A series that was competitive and lopsided all at once through the first six games, all of them decided by double digits, offered us a classic Game Seven finish. Had Jannero Pargo made the potential tying three with 1:07 left on the clock, these teams might still be playing, so even were they in this series. As it is, the San Antonio Spurs have survived their most challenging series since they were eliminated by Dallas in a Game Seven in the same round two years ago.
Let me back up a second. While these teams were incredibly evenly matched, both scoring precisely 645 points over the course of the seven games, last night it felt like San Antonio was clearly the superior team. Even when the Hornets made their two big runs--a 12-0 second-quarter blitz and a sustained 13-3 surge in the fourth quarter--it felt like streak shooting as much as anything else. The biggest reason for that was a Spurs defense that came up huge all night long.
A New Orleans offense that was so potent over the course of the season mustered just 82 points in 84 possessions in the biggest game of the year. Frankly, the final number doesn't even do justice to the visceral sense that the Spurs had taken away virtually everything the Hornets wanted to do. After watching the game outside, I was stunned to come home to a box score and find that David West had finished with 20 points on 8-of-19 shooting; he seemed completely ineffective during the course of the game. Meanwhile, Tyson Chandler had 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting, but all on garbage plays and lobs.
In the fourth quarter, then, Byron Scott just turned Pargo and Chris Paul loose. It was the most effective offense the Hornets had all night, Pargo finding his touch after a horrendous series. Even then, New Orleans was unable to find a sustainable offensive formula. A telling stat came in terms of assists. The Hornets had 18 as a team on 33 buckets, not a bad ratio--but 14 of them came from Paul. The rest of the team had just four assists all game, evidence of how crisply the Spurs were rotating defensively, forcing New Orleans into looks they didn't really want to take.
Still, the Hornets were able to mount a late run because the Spurs' offense remains wildly inconsistent. A series that had started with New Orleans putting the game on the San Antonio role players concluded in largely the opposite fashion. While the non-big three Spurs played well, coming up with eight huge three-pointers (even Robert Horry pulled out the wayback machine to knock down a pair from beyond the arc) amongst San Antonio's 12 as a team in 28 attempts, they were a relatively small part of the Spurs' offense. The big three combined to take 53 of the team's 76 shot attempts and all 21 San Antonio free throws.
Overall, the Hornets did a good job defensively against Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, who scored 59 points on all of those shots. The threes and strong free-throw shooting (19-for-21, 90.5%) produced an efficient night on offense for the Spurs, who scored 91 points in 82 possessions. During the fourth quarter, however, those threes did not fall; at one point, San Antonio went 12 trips down the floor without a field goal, scoring only at the free-throw line.
A year ago, the Hornets had an uncertain future as they returned to New Orleans. They had a core of young stars, but Peja Stojakovic was coming off of back surgery and the team had not made the postseason since moving to the Western Conference. While this loss and the knowledge that this team was good enough to get at least to the West Finals (if not beyond) stings, this has been a magical season for the Hornets. They've seen Paul blossom from one of the NBA's best young players into one of its best players, period; developed a winning formula under Scott; and re-energized (or, perhaps, energized for the first time) the New Orleans community behind basketball.
Going forward, the area of attack for Hornets GM Jeff Bower is obvious. New Orleans must strengthen its bench, which Scott could not trust late in this series. In Game Seven, Scott essentially cut back to a six-man rotation, playing the rest of his bench besides Pargo a combined nine minutes. The Hornets can count on more from forward Julian Wright in his sophomore campaign as he adds experience to his obvious physical gifts, but need to improve their depth between their pick late in the first round (No. 27 overall) and free agency.
That said, it's not the time to think about how New Orleans can take the next step or even San Antonio's offensive limitations. After the Spurs completed a comeback from deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 in this series, they must be given respect for showing what a team can do on the strength of strong gameplanning, a commitment to defense, experience...and, oh yes, three star-caliber players to carry the team.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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