- David Thorpe, NBA
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Game 5 had the look and feel of a classic Tim Duncan masterpiece. The Hornets had not settled on a defensive system that they trusted, and Duncan seemed fully recovered from whatever ailed him in Games 1 and 2. San Antonio did indeed get half of a masterpiece, as Duncan pulled down an incredible 23 rebounds. And he managed to get up 18 shots (he averaged 15 during the season). But he made only half of the shots he's expected to make (five instead of 10), and his teammates were equally disappointing in the second half. So now the defending champs are just one game away from elimination by a young but hungry Hornets team. Do the Spurs have enough juice to play four good quarters in Game 6? And what can they do to prevent yet another third quarter collapse?
It seems likely that the Spurs know they have the best chance to win when their offense is in gear. In Games 3 and 4 (Spurs wins) they scored 110 and 100 points, but have never come close to those totals in their three losses. Duncan is always a key to their offensive success, either with his own scoring or the opportunities he affords others with the attention he draws. After the first few minutes of Game 5, San Antonio had a decent flow going throughout the first half. The Spurs spaced the floor well for TD, playing four-around-one and letting him operate inside or kick it back out to shooters. The Hornets did a nice job of mixing up their defensive looks: Sometimes they had the ultra-quick Chris Paul dive down to double and bother TD; other times they faked the double. They worked at shifting Duncan's focus to reacting to what was going to happen, instead of letting him get comfortable dictating the action to them. But on his kickouts, the Spurs' shooters did an excellent job of using shot-fake attack moves, slicing into the teeth of the defense and creating shots for themselves or others. The Hornets were forced to scramble, hoping to close off the perimeter shooters, but the Spurs' patience and discipline made them pay.
The Hornets started the second half by blitzing a ball screen, and Fabricio Oberto stepped up as the pressure-release man and then delivered a perfect strike inside for a dunk. Post-to-post passing action has been an excellent remedy to the Hornets' defense all series. But Oberto has rarely made that kind of play. He has usually hidden behind defenders instead of flashing in front of them -- either in front of the rim when TD has the ball high, or in the soft high-middle area when the ball is on the wing. Getting the post player opposite Duncan to be a greedy receiver seems a must for San Antonio to effectively "gut" the Hornets' defense.
The Spurs basically disintegrated after that, showing little poise and toughness. They finished softly instead of with force. They made casual passes and lazy catches, resulting in turnovers. They took quick shots that were nothing special. The Spurs know that if they can clean up those mental errors, they will go a long way toward jump-starting their offense back toward 100-plus points. Setting ball screens for Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker to attack the basket should create five-on-three situations. The Hornets have defended better when the ball is centered high, but San Antonio had success in the first half of Game 5 by picking a side -- allowing the Hornets to flood the ball-side zone -- then back screening the weak side and throwing a skip pass to the other side of the floor. This movement forces the Hornets' soft defense to run and rotate, and is a great plan for the Spurs in Game 6.
Getting Duncan the ball in better spots is a good idea, too, because he continues to struggle a little in scoring over Tyson Chandler one-on-one. San Antonio ran a duck-in for him off a flex cut that looked nice, and I'd expect more screen-and-seal action Thursday night. TD needs help in getting angles to score over Chandler.
Of course, scoring 100 points may not be enough if San Antonio can't defend David West, who was the big-time performer of Game 5. He can (and did) score on every Spurs defender, but doubling him means playing a three-man zone and letting Paul create a shot for himself or Peja Stojakovic. Worse still, the Spurs could stay home on Peja -- so as to avoid letting him make some game-changing 3-pointers -- and try to defend Paul and two teammates with just two defenders. Either option could prove painful for San Antonio. Nonetheless, the Spurs can't just let West score 38 points again without doing something about it, so mixing up their doubles seems a solid plan. If both West and Paul are rolling, the Spurs must risk letting Peja get hot, by leaving him to stop one of the other two.
San Antonio will scramble defensively to stop the best three guys from New Orleans, but that is when Paul and the other Hornets can really go to work. Paul can get a shot for any teammate, and although these other Hornets haven't done much lately, some timely 3-pointers or buckets could prove to be the difference in this series. This is the 10th time in franchise history the Spurs have been down 3-2 in a best-of-seven series. They have never come back from that deficit to win a series. Knowing how formidable the Hornets are, the Spurs' players and coaches will all put forth their effort -- and hopefully their best game -- of the season. This season New Orleans has been terrific when the pressure's on to win, but will the Hornets sense the incredible opportunity they have in Game 6 to take advantage of the older and slower team after just one day of rest? CP3 may be the biggest competitor (other than Kobe) left in these playoffs, so my guess is yes, they'll be ready. But so will the Spurs.
PREDICTION: Spurs win Game 6
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.
Scouts Inc. previews Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Spurs and the Hornets, and picks the winner.