SAN ANTONIO -- Maybe it's a one-game mirage, or maybe they were playing possum on us the whole time.
All I know is after three games of watching a team called the Spurs battle the Hornets, Sunday I finally felt like I was watching the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.
In evening their best-of-seven series 2-2 with a 100-80 rout of New Orleans, the Spurs did everything we've become accustomed to seeing over the past few years. Each of their big three produced big numbers, with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan combining for 54 points in the first three quarters to put the champs up 85-61 before the Hornets waved the white flag.
The Spurs' ball movement was outrageously good, with the ball flying around the perimeter once one of the big three gave it up and seemingly always landing in the paws of an open shooter. That enabled the Spurs to shoot 58.9 percent through three quarters and assist 22 of their 33 field goals; nearly all the ones that weren't assisted were straight screen-and-roll drives by Parker.
"It's all about moving the ball against these guys," Duncan said. "We know where they're coming from and we have to find our shooters and make jump shots."
The offense was a major factor, but the D was just as important. San Antonio stopped the Hornets for the first time all series, by using the same strategy they've used successfully against Phoenix's Steve Nash and applying it to Chris Paul.
They let him get his points (23) but cut off the Hornets' other scorers -- through three quarters his teammates only had 38 points. (Side note: The stats being used here are all through three quarters, since the game had effectively ended by then; we don't care how 12 minutes of Jacque Vaughn and Ryan Bowen impacted the numbers).
David West and Peja Stojakovic, who destroyed the Spurs in the first two games, combined to shoot 7-for-24, and few of them were easy looks (though the two layups Stojakovic blew in the first six minutes probably were a bad omen).
The Hornets didn't convert a single alley-oop either, after the Paul-to-Tyson Chandler hook-up got loose several times in the first two games. In fact, Chandler's only points came when San Antonio intentionally fouled him at the end of the first half.
And perhaps most importantly, Duncan showed his flu bug in the first two games is a thing of the past, dominating the interior with 15 rebounds and four blocks. His defensive presence helped the Spurs hold the Hornets to one second-chance point and 24 points in the paint through three.
"We had the same energy tonight that we had in Game 3 defensively, and that's the best way for us to play," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "We're not a great offensive team, but if we play good defense, that fuels everything we do."
But Duncan's offense had to be the most depressing part for the Hornets. If you're going to constantly double Duncan and let him get 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting, then you're pretty much screwed.
"It makes me laugh when [people] say he's struggling because they double-team every single time," Tony Parker said. "Tonight he made more shots, they let him a little bit open because we keep making 3s."
And with Duncan healthier than he was for Game 1 in particular, it's the one variable that could really change things up when the series goes back to the Big Easy for Game 5 on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, New Orleans has to go back to the drawing board, especially at the defensive end after the Spurs scored at will for a second straight game. It wasn't like New Orleans stopped one thing to give up something else; the Spurs just did whatever they wanted.
Before Game 1, Hornets coach Byron Scott had mentioned that in order to beat the Spurs you have to take away one of their big three, and for two games his team did that by neutralizing Duncan. Sunday, however, they were nowhere close.
"Our intensity was terrible," Scott said. "From Game 1 to Game 4, it's gotten worse, and theirs has gotten better. They're just kicking our butts right now."
"I don't even think we tried tonight," echoed West.
Scott also said some early misses on high-percentage shots -- including Stojakovic's two layups and a couple of open J's by West -- might have frustrated his troops.
"We went back to some of our bad habits early in the season, where we missed some easy shots in the first six to seven minutes of the game and we let that dictate how hard we were going to play at the defensive end," Scott said.
The Spurs still have work left to do, of course. Winning on the road has become a rather difficult proposition in these playoffs, if the first 15 games of the second round are any judge (road clubs are just 1-14). San Antonio has to win at least once in Nawlins if it's going to survive another round.
Additionally, don't expect the Hornets to roll over. They're young, yes, but in talking with both the Mavericks and the Spurs in these first two rounds, it's been clear how much respect opponents have for New Orleans' ability to play beyond its years. The Hornets are unusually smart and team-oriented for young guys, and they're tough. "They have an edge to them," a Spurs exec said.
Besides, it's easy to forget the first two games were just as big a beatdown in favor of New Orleans as these past two have been for the Spurs.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that the veteran Spurs have pulled even, and one has to assume that playoff experience is a currency that carries greater weight as we get deeper into a series.
"We went back to being a little inexperienced in this situation," Scott said, "and we just didn't match their effort."
As a result, the defending champions are off the mat. More importantly, they're finally looking like defending champions.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.