Commentary

Down 2-0, weary Spurs hang repeat hopes on comforts of home

Originally Published: May 24, 2008
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Tim DuncanStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesWhich number matters more in this series: the 11 rings worn by Tim Duncan and Robert Horry, or the 30 points by which the Lakers decimated the Spurs on Friday night? We'll find out Sunday in San Antonio.

LOS ANGELES -- You could still make the claim late Friday night, as they slinked wearily out of the Staples Center after a 30-point beatdown, that the NBA's defending champions remain closer to back-to-back titles than they've ever been.

However ...

You'd be relying heavily on a technicality to sell that one.

It's undeniably true that this is the first time in the San Antonio Spurs' four attempts to follow a parade with another parade that they've taken their repeat bid past the second round. Yet even the Spurs, rather suddenly, acknowledge that they barely qualify as participants in the Western Conference finals so far.

"We're going home and one of two things is going to happen," Spurs forward Tim Duncan said, clearly rocked by the 101-71 rout that the Los Angeles Lakers had just inflicted.

"Either we're going to turn it around and make this thing into a series," Duncan continued, "or we're not."

The Spurs' famously stoic face of the franchise, like a lot of us, was expecting that about-face in this Game 2. More than once Thursday, as San Antonio soaked in the 20-point lead it squandered in the final quarter-plus of Game 1, Duncan announced -- in fairly racy terms by the standards of his public persona -- how "pissed off" the Spurs were about their uncharacteristic failure to finish off the opener.

The problem? They couldn't stay close enough in the rematch to muster any sort of convincing postgame fury. The Spurs surrendered the final nine points of the first half to snap a 37-37 tie and promptly capitulated, looking increasingly weary and befuddled in the second half ... and making coach Gregg Popovich wish he had heeded the voices inside telling him to impose a full night's rest on the hobbled Manu Ginobili.

Popovich instead settled for playing his favorite chip and returned Ginobili to his old sixth-man role after using him as a starter in the previous six playoff games. The Spurs' coach never believed that the switch would somehow help his game-breaking swingman play through the ankle trouble, which appears to be steadily draining away Ginobili's explosiveness, but Popovich did believe the move might at least ignite San Antonio's dormant second unit and perhaps spark new starter Michael Finley.

The results on those fronts were probably more of a downer for the visitors than the realization that they've been outscored by no less than 54 points since taking that 65-45 lead in Game 1. After his own personal seven-point nightmare, Ginobili has totaled just 17 points for the series on (gulp) 5-for-21 shooting.

Knowing that his crew has essentially no shot to rebound in this series if Ginobili can't start winding his way to the rim -- even with a 6-0 record at home this postseason -- Popovich pulled Duncan and Ginobili for good entering the fourth quarter. Tony Parker followed just three minutes later, with Damon Stoudamire's unexpected arrival early in the final period signaling the Spurs' surrender.

With the Lakers up by 21 at that point -- even with Kobe Bryant merely in cruise control -- San Antonio only had a couple reasonable options. The Spurs tried to save a little in the legs department, for starters, while also praying that the extended garbage time makes L.A. overconfident.

No joke. The Spurs could use a letdown from L.A., since they've realized one of their main pre-series priorities by keeping Bryant off the free-throw line so far and are halfway to summertime anyway. What happens if Bryant, who shot just one free throw in Game 2, moves into attack mode in Game 3 or Game 4 and starts getting to the line regularly?

And if you thought that the Spurs might draw some comfort from their recovery from a similar 2-0 deficit to New Orleans ...

"I can't take that as something to make me feel better," Ginobili said. "We are [down] 0-2. We should have been 1-1.

"So we've got to really step up, especially starting with me. ... [But] it's going to be really difficult now because they built confidence. They're playing great."

It's going to be difficult because Ginobili's claims that "today I actually felt better" than he did in Game 1 didn't sound too convincing after Popovich revealed that he gave real thought to "shutting him down for the game."

It's going to be difficult because one of the Lakers' presumed problems in this matchup -- trying to stop Parker and Ginobili without wearing down Bryant -- is a much smaller concern when Ginobili can't be the Manu he was all season. This was really the first season that Ginobili moved all the way into Duncan's stratosphere in terms of importance for the Spurs. So you can imagine their concern when Ginobili isn't a difference-maker and when Popovich is calling Parker "a little tentative" in a post-game address that also second-guesses Parker's confidence and aggressiveness.

These might not be fixable problems, either, with Ginobili in his current state. The Lakers, remember, have seen Parker in the playoffs many times before. They guard him better than anyone. Phil Jackson's personnel is largely different, true, but the Lakers' coach knows exactly where he wants his defense trapping and funneling Parker. Factor in Ginobili's limitations and the Spurs' ongoing inability to make shots on the road and you wonder how they're going to discourage L.A. from swarming Duncan, who had just 12 points to go with his 16 boards.

For all its veteran savvy, San Antonio has been shakier than ever from the 3-point line, converting just 11-for-43 from long distance (.256) in the two games. Duncan, too, was guilty of four bad misses from the free-throw line in four attempts as well as a failure to punish Pau Gasol after his L.A. counterpart picked up two quick fouls.

"I think they had an off night," Jackson said. "I think they had some tired legs and I think that's what happens sometimes."

Of course, Jackson then helpfully tacked on the reminder that the teams will be playing "every other day here in this situation." Which is why those three days of rest San Antonio had before winning the Game 7 in New Orleans don't sound nearly so energizing now.

It's looking more and more like they needed to beat the Hornets in six games or fewer to counter the Lakers' youth and depth. Or at least for Ginobili's sake.

"We're confident that we're a very good home team, but you hate to put yourself in a position where you're down 0-2," Duncan said. "But it is what is, so we're going to go home and try and change the tide of it."

What he neglected to mention, or perhaps didn't know, is that the Spurs would be flying home on the New York Knicks' plane. After all the travel trouble San Antonio had getting from New Orleans to Los Angeles, it was incumbent upon the league to arrange replacement transportation for the Spurs, which the league did with a call to the Knicks.

Which can't be good for the karma of the Spurs' deeper-than-ever repeat bid.

Can it?

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics