- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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These two teams, though not mirror images of each other, are strikingly similar in many respects. Both have very special point guards who control the game. Both have special power forwards. Both have dynamic scorers off the bench. And both teams like to grind things out, but are blessed with players who excel in transition when the situation calls for it. The teams split four games this season, with each team taking a road win.
The interesting comparisons do not stop there. New Orleans finished third overall in the regular season in 3-point field goal percentage at 38.9 percent. San Antonio finished third in field goal percentage defense from 3, allowing just 34.2 percent. Each team dispatched its first-round opponent in five games, and used a higher-octane offense to do it. (New Orleans scored 5.9 more points per game in its four wins, while the Spurs improved by 5.1 points in regulation.)
Defending each other's pick-and-roll will be the telling aspect of this series. Keeping their bigs out of foul trouble is of utmost importance, so getting weakside help will be pivotal. New Orleans shot so well from deep against Dallas that the Spurs must really focus on whom they want to leave open when Chris Paul comes off a ball screen. Peja Stojakovic and Jannero Pargo are deadly, Tyson Chandler will dunk anything thrown near the rim, and David West always must be accounted for. When those four guys are around Paul, the Spurs will be in a definite bind. They might try to make Paul a scorer only, cutting off his passes to the perimeter and taking away the lobs -- forcing him to finish over a big that hangs back a little instead of hard-hedging. It's risky, as Paul can explode for 40-plus points. But playing him with classic "show, rotate, recover" strategies can lead to a 35-point and 15-assist night -- which means he'll have accounted for 65 points. Paul is a "pass-first" point guard, so taking away the passing lanes might take him off rhythm for a bit, but he's ultracompetitive and will be only too willing to do what it takes to get a win. Expect the strategies to change from half to half and game to game.
It's just as tough on New Orleans, with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili slicing off Tim Duncan or Kurt Thomas and getting to the rim or pulling up for a midrange jumper. Trailing them off ball screens allows them to get to the rim, potentially drawing fouls on their front line, which is thin. Going under might be the better ploy on them, but each is capable of huge scoring numbers when his jumper is on, which happens frequently. And not pressuring the ball means their guards have an easier time passing to Duncan. Phoenix ultimately committed almost everyone to the paint to help on San Antonio's ball screens. It worked to a large extent, but Phoenix finished the season as the second best shot-blocking team, and New Orleans finished 28th. Again, the defense will have to adjust each game based on how the Spurs are shooting.
Parker: Parker picked up right where he left off last season as the Finals MVP -- killing Phoenix with his sheer quickness, crafty drives, and creative finishes. He used ball screens to wreak havoc inside and in his midrange game. He played well against New Orleans this season, averaging 19.5 points on 50.8 percent field goal shooting. But defending Chris Paul makes things difficult on both ends of the floor -- Parker shot just 47.3 percent from the line on 4.8 shots per game, likely because he was thinking about defensive responsibilities (poor free-throw shooting performances from decent shooters are normally concentration-related problems). Parker's midrange game needs to be on, as finishing over and around Chandler is difficult.
Paul: Paul raised his level of MVP-caliber play in the first round, putting down the Mavs with 25 points and 12 assists on 50 percent shooting. He's devastating in the open court and using ball screens. Though he's not a lockdown guy, he's brilliant at creating chaos on defense, a very valuable talent when matched up with a precision-focused team like the Spurs. His battle with Parker should be epic, as Paul performed well (22 ppg on 53 percent shooting) against the Spurs in the regular season. Paul is also a tempo master, which is key if the Spurs try to get the Hornets to play faster.
Finley: Finley made some big shots in the Spurs' first two wins over Phoenix, using their off-ball screening game and hitting some swing jumpers. But he limped down the stretch, and was scoreless in 31 minutes in Game 5. He barely scored in four games against the Hornets (2.5 ppg) but does figure to play a key role on the weakside as New Orleans floods the ball-side box when defending ball screens. He may struggle to stay with the red hot Pargo when he comes off the bench, so that may limit his time.
Peterson: He's a steady veteran presence and can be a 3-point threat, especially from the corners. He averaged only six points against the Spurs, but may be needed for defensive help on Manu Ginobili. He's the type of shooter who can get hot and make a real difference in a game; he's not afraid to take big shots.
Bowen: He has only one task this series -- don't give Peja Stojakovic any decent looks. Stojakovic is on fire, which will challenge Bowen to decide when he can help on Paul penetration and when he must stay home. He is still a valuable defender in spots and will make it tough on Stojakovic to get looks coming off screens. Bowen is one of the best "lock and trail" guys in the league. And it seems likely that, in a tight series, a Bowen 3-point attempt will win or lose at least one game for the Spurs.
Stojakovic: He is one of the world's best perimeter shooters, and he's coming off a red-hot 17-for-28 performance from the 3 against Dallas. He loves to drift to open spots and wait for Paul to find him. He's very effective at catching and shooting off skip passes from Paul; the Spurs must always have an eye out for him. He'll also back down smaller defenders and is capable at finding open men if doubled. When engaged (which he will be), he's an underrated defender -- and he's got enough size to bother the Spurs' guards on drives to the basket.
Duncan: Though Shaq defended him pretty well, Duncan still averaged 25 points and 14 rebounds in the series. Those are gaudy numbers, and that's without considering the fact that he hit the biggest shot of the first round. He's now facing a much better perimeter threat in David West, and a much better athlete in Chandler, so he'll need to get some rest in each game to have big-time energy in late-game situations. He averaged 22.5 and 10.5 and shot 63.8 percent from the field against the Hornets during the season. He looked like he's still the best big man in the game during Round 1, and he could be the difference-maker in this tough matchup. West is good enough to give Duncan problems, so TD must be wary of early fouls.
West: West is one of the league's best but least-known power forwards. He does some of everything -- averaged 22.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.6 blocks against Dallas. He's a terrific spot-up shooter and almost as good off one or two dribbles. He's adept at dribbling from open spaces and driving to the rim, and will hit the jumper if his defender explodes away to prevent the drive. He'll post up anyone as well. He's definitely a tough matchup for any Spurs big, and West plays with an enforcer's attitude. He averaged 23 points on 58 percent shooting against the Spurs. If Paul is out or struggling, the Hornets will look to West for leadership and scoring. He's very good on the other end as well as the team's best shot-blocker, and he's very good at taking away his opponent's best stuff. Bottom line, he plays like a beast, but a very skilled and smart one.
Thomas: Thomas started and played solidly versus Phoenix. He hit some important pick-and-pop jumpers on occasion, but did not shoot well overall. He's a nice position defender down low, but will have a tough time containing Chandler (inside) or West (outside). When Duncan is out and they run ball screens with Thomas, he needs to make some pick-and-pop jumpers to free up his scoring guards.
Chandler: He's Chris Paul's pick-and-roll partner, who can get almost anything above the rim to slam home. His shot-blocking/contesting may be more important in this series, trying to intimidate and negate the powerful ball screen action from the Spurs. He knows his limitations on offense, so he rarely takes a bad shot. Chandler is always looking to make plays on the offensive glass, so San Antonio has to account for him after its rotations on defense. Just standing next to him isn't enough -- he averaged 4.6 offensive rebounds a game in the five games against Dallas. His biggest challenge will be to stay out of foul trouble, as the Hornets are not deep inside.
In the Spurs' first three wins, he played a key role, making big-time shots late in two games and killing the midrange jumper in another. Ginobili shot 8-for-12 from the 3 in Games 2 and 3, averaging 25 points, and he will dominate the game at times in this series, too. He struggled in the last two games of the series, perhaps dealing with a slight injury. Played just OK (16 ppg on 45 percent shooting) against New Orleans in the season, and they tagged him well on the perimeter, too (6-for-22 from 3). Manu will have to outplay the Hornets' own super sub (Pargo) in one of the better matchups of the series.
Oberto may start some games if Thomas struggles defending West or Chandler. Steady and unspectacular, he finds ways to help win games.
He's on his last legs, and looked out of sorts when he got chances to play. The Spurs still are looking for him (or someone else) to be able to come in and make 3s from the weak side.
He's a solid defender against strong players but can struggle with quick guys. Hit only 1-for-9 from 3 in the first round.
He's not at Ginobili's level, but don't tell the Mavs that, as he came off the bench and just killed Dallas. He averaged 14.6 points and shot 50 percent from 2s and 3s. He's quick on the dribble and excellent at the pull-up jumper in transition. If he can somewhat neutralize Manu's production, the Hornets have a much better chance to win this series.
Wright has been one of the top five rookies since the All-Star break. He's very athletic and plays with energy, looks for lobs in transition but has some skill, too.
Wells is still a solid offensive guy who can shoot, drive, and post. He had a monster series against the Spurs two years ago when he played for Sacramento. They couldn't defend him inside.
Armstrong played solidly when necessary against Dallas. He should expect to see time because of Chandler's aggressive play and likelihood to pick up fouls.
In a few key ways, New Orleans has a decided edge. The team's weakside shooting and rebounding is superior to San Antonio's. So are the combinations of scoring and athletic energy that they can bring off their bench. The Spurs are deeper inside and sounder overall defensively. New Orleans having home-court advantage is a clear plus against most teams, but the Spurs have too many big road wins over the years for it to be considered a disadvantage.
In the end, I think New Orleans is a slightly better team, but the Spurs are chasing history in a profound way. They are an amazing team in crunch time, and the teams they play against often are not. And that will be the difference.
Prediction: San Antonio 4, New Orleans 2
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.
1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com