Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Lakers and Spurs to fight for Western Crown

The San Antonio Spurs don’t believe in fairy tales. On Sunday night, the New Orleans Hornets had their Cinderella ride through the 2007-08 season end at the hands of the leagues leaders in no-nonsense basketball.
By winning game 7 on the road 91-82, San Antonio ignored the trend that had previously seen the home team win each game. Down 0-2 at one point, the Spurs came back to win this series, 4 games to 3.
Led by Manu Ginobili (26 points, 5 rebounds & 5 assists), Tony Parker (17 points) & Tim Duncan (16 points, 14 rebounds), the Spurs had to draw on all their experience to overcome an opponent who failed to even make the playoffs last season.
Chris Paul was New Orleans best player and he almost had a triple double, finishing with 18 points, 14 assists, 8 rebounds and 5 steals. Paul fouled out late in the fourth quarter but by then, the game was effectively over.
Having been beaten soundly in the 3 previous games played in New Orleans, San Antonio knew they needed to establish a lead early in this one – make the Hornets chase them for a change. And that’s what they did. At one stage in the third quarter, the Spurs led by as many as 17 before the Hornets mounted a comeback and cut the margin to 5 with just over 3 minutes left in the fourth quarter. New Orleans would get no closer.
It seemed as though the basketball gods were trying to send the Hornets a subtle message. From not making the playoffs at all in three seasons prior to this one, New Orleans sudden ascendancy to second seed in the West was a little premature. They hadn’t served their apprenticeship for long enough and weren’t supposed to be ready, not yet anyway. “You don’t go from not making the playoffs to winning a championship. It just doesn’t work that way” Hornets coach Byron Scott opined after the game.
The evidence was clear; Chris Paul’s tear-drop floaters in the lane had fooled defenders all season long & they normally swish sweetly through the net. Instead, with the game 7 glare they caught the front of the rim and fell short. David West’s 17 foot ‘layups’ that he’s made with his eyes closed during the regular season rattled around a few times before popping out.
Furthermore, San Antonio handled the pressure like clichéd professionals. They still made errors and turned the ball over, but by half time, their first half nerves had vanished and they had seized control. But, when the spotlight is at its brightest, the big stars shine the most. Tim Duncan, a career 68% free throw shooter and an even worse 61% for this series, calmly made all 6 of his free throws when it mattered most.
With the exception of Jannero Pargo, Byron Scott didn’t show much faith in his bench players either, preferring to use his starters for most of the game. Gregg Popovich on the other hand, called on playoff veterans Robert Horry and Michael Finley and both made big shots at critical times.
In a city well equipped for a party, Bourbon St would have been the place to be on Monday night if New Orleans won. In contrast, with San Antonio there were no wild celebrations. A few congratulatory handshakes and an acknowledgement of a job well done and it was back to work.
Gregg Popovich had only a look of satisfaction on his face. No great jubilation or sighs of relief, just a longer day at the office than normal. The Spurs had been close to elimination, but it didn’t matter now.

The Spurs and the Lakers now reacquaint themselves in the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers dispatched the Utah Jazz in 6 games in the conference semi-finals. The Jazz find themselves once again better than most teams in the West, but never the best.
With the MVP award safely tucked away, Kobe Bryant now wants desperately to add a fourth NBA championship to his resume.
He is the undisputed leader of the Lakers but it’s no longer a one man show in LA. Pau Gasol & Lamar Odom lead an impressive supporting cast which combined with home court advantage, gives the Lakers the edge. LA is unbeaten in 5 post season games at the Staples Center.
These teams split the regular season series 2-2.
This is Kobe’s year, LA in 6.

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