It was yet another 3-pointer by the Spurs, this one putting them up by 15 late in the third quarter. And on a night when the Hornets enjoyed a massive advantage in points in the paint (46-18), second-chance points (15-6) and fast-break points (13-2), those 12 San Antonio triples made the difference in a 91-82 Game 7 win over New Orleans. The first road win by either team in the series, it sends San Antonio to the conference finals against the Lakers. Game 1 is Wednesday in Los Angeles.
While the 3-pointers gave San Antonio the advantage, it was the third quarter that again proved pivotal. In a series dominated by third-quarter explosions, it was the Hornets' lack of one that was their undoing.
New Orleans had outscored San Antonio 93-46 in the third quarter in the previous three games in New Orleans Arena, offsetting the Spurs' halftime lead in each of those games. Perhaps the Hornets were a bit cavalier about this, because once again they went into halftime trailing -- this time by nine points.
And this time, no third-quarter theatrics bailed them out. Instead, a 14-point brickfest set them as many as 17 points down, and although a valiant comeback nearly got them even with about a minute left in the game, the deficit ultimately proved too much to overcome.
"We did real good defensively," said Hornets coach Byron Scott of his team's second half. "We just couldn't make shots."
Indeed, New Orleans held San Antonio to just 40 points after the break -- only 34 if you exclude six points in the final 41 seconds that came as the result of intentional fouling. The Spurs shot 27.8 percent for the half and recovered only five of their 26 misses. That type of defensive effort was consistent with the way the Hornets slammed the door on San Antonio after halftime in the other three games.
What changed was a miserable 15-for-40 second-half shooting effort by New Orleans.
The one that will particularly haunt them is a wide-open triple in the corner by Jannero Pargo with 1:07 left that could have tied the game at 83. Instead he front-rimmed it, Tim Duncan got the rebound, and San Antonio scored on a Tony Parker jumper at the other end. The Hornets never threatened again.
"When I got that rebound and saw JP ahead of me I was like, man, lights out," Chris Paul said.
"A great look," Pargo said. "I was in the corner by myself and CP found me. I had two guys running at me but I had more than enough time to get my feet set and get off a good shot. I left it a little short."
And sometimes, that's the story in the NBA -- one team makes its shots and one team misses. Monday night, it was the Spurs who were hot both on 3-pointers (12-of-28) and at the line (19-of-21), while the Hornets were uncharacteristically deficient from outside.
New Orleans made only 4-of-17 from 3-point range overall; some of the misses were a result of San Antonio's defense and some came on shots like Pargo's. "Any time that happens, it's always a combination," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
The triples weren't the Hornets' only problem. Paul shot 8-for-18 and West was just 8-for-19, including only eight points after the first quarter. West said his back was fine before the game but seemed to wince at times and was noticeably less energetic as the game wore on.
"We make no excuses, they just outplayed us," West said.
But beyond backs and bricks, one also wonders if the moment was simply too big for the young Hornets.
"Every team has to go through this," Scott said. "You don't go from not making the playoffs to winning the championship. It doesn't work that way."
"We were a little jittery at the beginning of the game," Pargo said. "Our first time being in a Game 7, against the defending champs, and they come out just making shots."
For the game, the Spurs outscored the Hornets 54-24 on jump shots. That included 36-12 from the 3-point line, and 18-12 on 2-point jump shots -- a pretty amazing number considering the Hornets were the team that lined up two 3-point aces and a midrange specialist alongside the league's best point guard.
But San Antonio's defensive execution was flawless, with ball movement constantly finding the open man. Regardless of who it was, he knocked it down -- five different Spurs made at least two triples.
To their credit, the Hornets didn't go down quietly. Instead, Tyson Chandler held Duncan to 0-for-10 shooting in the final 22 minutes, while a few fantastic hustle plays spurred a late rally. In one sequence, Pargo beat Bruce Bowen on a jump ball despite giving up half a foot in size, then the Hornets ran down three offensive rebounds before Pargo hit a triple to cut the Spurs' lead to three.
But it was too little, too late. Call it a lack of experience, call it a tough shooting night, call it what you will. Whatever it was that ailed the Hornets, West had a simple prescription:
"We have to be better."
There are many ways to do that -- certainly the bench is one area to address (see sidebar). But for now, the near-miraculous turnaround in New Orleans -- both on the court and in the seats -- will have to wait at least another year before it can come full circle from the 18-64 debacle in 2004-05.
Regardless, the Hornets don't expect to be down for long.
"There's no doubt about it," Paul said. "We'll be right here next year and we'll get through it."
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.