Sunday, May 4, 2008

Western Semis, Game 1: Peja Heads

New Orleans 101 | San Antonio 82
Western Conference Semifinals: Game 1 [box score]

On any other day of the week, I'd be terrified to face the reigning champs in a playoff series. Even with home court advantage, the looming Spurs are a seasoned crew who frequently show up for big games and squash the dreams of many a player and fan. But somehow, Saturday night in the hive did not feature any anxiety about the fact that the Hornets were playing host to a team who's won 4 of the last 9 NBA titles. Instead, there was excitement: a distinguishable "buzz" was running through the crowd.

But why, you might ask. Was it the fact that the Spurs looked a little older and moved a little slower this April, than in others past? Was it that the Hornets had split the season series with the Spurs, with both of their victories having a 20+ point margin? Was it that the Hornet's had just won their first seven-game playoff series? Or that the last time they even played in the Conference Semis was in the Least? Was it that CP3 seemed utterly unstoppable against Dallas in the previous series with no signs of slowing up? Or was it the sea of yellow that graced the arena provided by the "Mardis Gras Gold" t-shirts that each fan was given (at the behest of Chris Paul)? Maybe it was the Peja on-a-stick that each fan waved wildly in the air?

What's not to love?

Truth be told, the above may have had something to do with it, but in all actuality the crowd was so loose and carefree because the game didn't actually start until 9:00pm. As such, the league inadvertently gave the Hornets an additional advantage by allowing its fan base to have an additional two hours to get "loose" before the game. And in New Orleans, we're at our best when we're 11 or 12 sheets to the wind.

So that was it. No anxiety in the fan base. Just pure excitement and pure energy.

And the Hornets fed off of this energy, jumping out to a quick 8-0 start. They then promptly relinquished the lead after the Spurs had their own little run of 10-2. The advantage stayed in San Antonio's hands, bouncing between 11 and 4, for the first 24 minutes. But after half-time, the Hornets came out full throttle and outscored the Spurs 56-33 to end the game with a 19 point victory.

Even with home court advantage, you've got to hand it to this crew. Byron wore his huevos on the outside, double-teaming Tim Duncan all night which led big Timmy to go 1-9 from the field and finish with a measly 5 points and 3 rebounds. In case you want some kind of reference point, here are Duncan's per game averages for the regular season: 19.3 points on almost 50% shooting with 11 boards.

Doubling Duncan meant risking a deluge of treys from San Antonio's very capable - albeit aged - jump shooters. Remarkably, it was Bruce Bowen who made us pay the most by dropping a team-high 17 points with 5 bombs from beyond the arc. But the Hornets stood firm and forced plenty of bad shots that eventually led to 16 and 17 point quarters in the second half.

On the offensive end, D.West proved to be unstoppable when the likes of Kurt Thomas (whom I like) and Fabricio Oberto (whom I hate) attempted to guard him. He finished the night with 30. CP's 17 point, 13 dime performance actually fell below most people's expectations (especially after he exploded against Dallas in game 1 of the first series), but additional help arrived via Peja, who gave everyone a reason to wave Peja-on-a-sticks by contributing 22 points (remarkably, though, only two of his buckets were treys, leaving the rest to slashing and creating off the dribble... it was nice to see some versatility in his game). Best of all, when Popovich implemented the Hack-a-Tyson defensive method late in the second, Chandler responded by sinking both free-throws.

The remarkable part of this game was actually the lack of flopping on the part of the Spurs. Manu fell a few times away from the play (but failed to draw any fouls), and if Oberto or Duncan made such a move, I was totally unaware of it... or it just didn't work. I expected to see more of that strategy since it has proved to be successful for them in the past. It also seems like a good way to get a younger team frustrated. There were a few skirmishes involving Oberto and whoever happened to be posterizing him at that moment, but none of them resulted in anything other than a loss of Fabricio's pride.

The only real run-in of note was yet another entry in the Paul-Bowen saga. Bowen committed a relatively physical foul on Paul near the perimeter that the fans were chalking up to be technical (like we always do). I don't even remember what the call was because of what happened next. As Bowen followed the ref, doing a perfect Duncan impression, Paul followed behind to drop in his two cents. And then, Paul took an elbow in the head from Bowen as he flailed about making his case to the ref... or did he? Did Paul fake it? It looked fishy, no doubt, and, in a wise move, the arena saw fit not to replay it. It all hearkened back to the incident that ended Bowen's NBA-leading consecutive game streak. The replay of that play shows Paul as the victim... but also a little as the instigator. Looks like our boys will be fighting fire with fire. It's like many a reporter has stated... don't be fooled by Paul's charm. He's got a fire inside all the same.

In the end, the "technical" didn't really matter. In the second half, that particular matchup was reduced to Paul lighting up Bowen and then staring him down each time Paul thought Bowen got too physical. The look was ostensibly as follows: "Keep it up. No amount of hips or elbows can stop me from owning you. Oh, and you hear all of those people? They love me and hate you... just like every single fan in this league that doesn't root for Utah" I am, of course, paraphrasing.

Stay tuned for tomorrow night's matchup in Game 2. We'll see if the Spurs make adjustments and if Byron can live up to his COY honors and out-adjust Pop.


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