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Spurs/Pistons Series Preview

   by Al McMordie - 06/09/2005


For the first time in years (perhaps since the Jazz and Bulls met), the NBA Finals is featuring a match-up between the league's two best teams. No, the Spurs and Pistons didn't compile the NBA's best record -- that honor belonged to Phoenix -- but most experts (including myself) predicted at the start of the regular season, as well as at the start of the Playoffs, that Detroit and San Antonio would battle it out for the Title.

In addition to being a matchup of the previous 2 Champions (and that hasn't happened since the Late 1980s when Boston played the Lakers), this series features two coaches who are best friends, and who have a close working relationship. Indeed, this past summer, Larry Brown was our Olympic head coach and Gregg Popovich was his assistant. (And both got to watch the Spurs' Manu Ginobili walk off with the Gold Medal along with his Argentinian countrymen.) I suspect that experience was all that Popovich needed to sign Ginobili to a long contract last fall so he never had to face him on an opposing team again. That was the 2nd time that Brown and Popovich coached together. Back in 1988, Brown hired the Air Force-trained Popovich to be his assistant in San Antonio. Brown eventually left the Spurs, and Pop also took a detour to join Don Nelson at Golden State, but both coaches eventually landed in their current positions, and have each won Titles.

Certainly, this series features two of the top coaches (and in my mind the two best) in the game (now that Phil Jackson has retired). Nobody knows Xs and Os like Larry Brown. And nobody knows how to teach like Larry Brown. Just look at his record. He has won EVERYWHERE. UCLA, Kansas, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Detroit, etc. Even the Clippers made the Playoffs with Larry on the sidelines (for that alone, he should get into the Hall of Fame). Whereas Brown's strength is his technical knowledge and strategy (how about throwing that zone defense at Dwayne Wade on that critical possession in the 4th quarter of Game 7), Popovich is the master motivator (a la Phil Jackson). With Pop, it all starts with getting his players to buy into his defensive system. Even Glenn Robinson (who had never played defense in his life) was sighted hustling on 'D'. One of the reasons Popovich gets his players' attention is that he runs the team like he was trained at the Air Force -- it's his way or the highway. Pop will get into Tim Duncan's face just as readily as rookie Beno Udrih. On most other NBA teams, the asylum is run by the inmates (recall Penny Hardaway getting coach Brian Hill fired in Orlando), but in San Antonio, it's Pop's team.

Although I have all the respect for Larry Brown, the coaching edge here goes to Popovich for two reasons. First, he also has the benefit of sitting next to former Seton Hall and Golden State coach P.J. Carlesimo, who should (but probably won't) be hired by the Knicks or Timberwolves. But more importantly, I like Pop's flexibility compared to Brown's regimented ways. For example, Larry has a long-standing rule that a player comes out of the game after picking up his 2nd foul in the first half, and sits until halftime. I understand the policy behind the coaching move, but sometimes you have to make exceptions -- and Brown rarely does. I wouldn't be surprised if that policy bites Brown in the rear at least once in this series since he plays with a short rotation and both Duncan and Ginobili are adept at drawing fouls. Now, compare that mindset to Popovich. Although he's tough and stern, he's definitely NOT rigid. When the Spurs won the 2003 title, he often yanked Tony Parker and put in Speedy Claxton. This year, in the first series against Denver after losing Game 1, Pop moved his All-Star guard, Ginobili, to the bench and started Brent Barry in his stead. Not too many coaches would implement a move like that in the Playoffs, but Pop gambled and it paid off with 4 straight wins. If San Antonio wins, then Popovich will join Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, John Kundla and Pat Riley as the only coaches to win at least 3 titles. Pop's .631 win percentage leads all active NBA coaches and is the 4th best all-time. So the coaching edge goes to the Spurs. Let's take a look at the player matchups.

Point Guard

San Antonio: The Spurs' Tony Parker played great against the 2005 MVP (Steve Nash), and that was the key to the series. Parker was able to penetrate and get into the lane in the first 3 games (all Spurs victories) and the Phoenix Suns didn't know what hit them. Parker is the quickest guard in the league, and if he gets inside, he'll either put in a running teardrop shot or dish off to Duncan for a layup. The ONLY way to stop him is to clog the lane and force him to resort to outside jumpers. Although he sometimes can hit the big outside shot, he has a flawed shooting stroke and is susceptible to extended slumps.

Detroit: I love Chauncey Billups' game. Unlike Parker, Billups is CLUTCH, and the Pistons turn to him when they need a big shot. Billups is averaging 18 points a game in the Playoffs, and he's bigger than Parker, so he'll be able to post him up. When Billups does this, San Antonio will have to send help in the form of Duncan or Nazr Mohammed from the weak side, or Billups will light them up.

Advantage: Detroit (since Parker is more prone to slumps)

Off Guard

San Antonio: Although technically Bruce Bowen is a small forward, I'm going to put him here (rather than Ginobili) since he will draw the assignment of guarding Pistons' guard Rip Hamilton. Bowen plays position defense better than any guard or forward in the game. He's constantly moving his feet, and not only keeps his man from getting off good shots, but sometimes prevents them from even touching the ball. He put shackles on Carmelo Anthony, Ray Allen, Shawn Marion and Quentin Richardson in these playoffs and NONE of them played up to their regular season levels. All-Stars like Vince Carter and Ray Allen have complained over the years that Bowen is dirty or plays "sissy basketball", but the bottom line is that he's the best. This past year, he was second in Defensive Player of the Year voting to Ben Wallace, and that's really the best he ever can do, since he's not a big man, and will never compile rebounds or blocked shots. On offense, Bowen has gradually improved his game, and can knock down the open 3-point goal from the corner, or dribble in and pop a 15-footer. But his strength is his defense, and the Spurs have enough offensive weapons to allow him to do his thing.

Detroit: Rip Hamilton is a wonderful mid-range shooter, as evidenced by his clutch performance in Game 7 vs. Miami. In the first quarter, Hamilton knocked down 6 shots in a row, and was 8 of 10 in the first half. Hamilton is also great at moving without the ball, and likes to come off screens and hit a shot from the elbow area, so it will be Bowen's job to fight through those screens and stick to him. Hamilton is also a decent passer, so if he's tightly guarded by Bowen, he'll be able to get the ball to an open man.

Advantage: Detroit (though Bowen will greatly reduce Hamilton's effectiveness)

Small Forward

San Antonio: There's not much that I can say about Ginobili that hasn't already been said. He's one of the top 20 players in the game, and has the competitive fire of an Allen Iverson and the flair of a Larry Bird. He can hit a 3-point jumper, or make you pay when you guard him too close by driving by you for a twisting lay-up. And if he misses the lay-up, you can bet he got fouled, which is bad news for the Spurs' opponents since he's San Antonio's best free throw shooter in the starting unit. Detroit will put Tayshaun Prince on Ginobili, and Prince's long arms will cause Ginobili some problems (as happened to Dwayne Wade at times early on in the Miami series). But Ginobili is impossible to stop completely on offense (Detroit can only hope to contain him). Besides being great offensively, Ginobili is a super defensive player who is the poster boy for Popovich's mantra that it all starts with defense. Ginobili hustles for loose balls and rebounds, and is a pin point passer to boot.

Detroit: Tayshaun Prince is a huge key for Detroit in this series. Not only must he limit Ginobili's scoring, but he has the potential to come up BIG for the Pistons on offense. Prince has size, so he'll be able to post-up Ginobili, and he'll also bury the 3-point goal. His length also enables him to be one of the league's best perimeter defenders. And he can run down opposing players on the break. One of Prince's shortcomings is that, in my opinion, he doesn't realize just how good he is. Often, he will not shoot ENOUGH. For Detroit to win, Prince will need to be aggressive on offense, and contain Ginobili.

Advantage: San Antonio

Power Forward

San Antonio: Tim Duncan is the best power forward to ever play the game. Better than Karl Malone. Better than Charles Barkley. Better than Kevin McHale. Better than Bob Pettit. Duncan has made first team All NBA in all 8 of his seasons! That's only been done by about 5 players in history. He's already won two MVP awards and 2 Championships, and he's Reason #1 that the Spurs have compiled the best won/loss percentage in all 4 major sports over the past 8 years (over 70% wins). Duncan currently has two weaknesses: his free throw shooting and his ankles. The Spurs can live with missed free throws, but not an ankle injury, so that's a concern. Duncan is a great post player who can finish with a baby hook, or hit a turnaround jumper. He can use the glass, and rebound missed shots for an easy dunk. When double-teamed, he will find the open man, so it's incumbent upon the Spurs' jump shooters to not go cold from the outside. What truly makes Duncan special is that he is the "anti-Super Star". He doesn't want the limelight, doesn't care how many points he scores, and is not jealous of any of his teammates. He'll be yelled at by Popovich like any other player and take the criticism like a man. By now, it's a well-worn cliche, but Duncan also makes his teammates better by getting them better looks on offense, and allowing them to overplay their men on defense.

Detroit: Rasheed Wallace is a fine player, and his lengthy arms have frustrated Duncan in the past (though the Spurs still swept Rasheed's Trail Blazers 4 games to none in 1999). Wallace was a MAN in Game 7 vs. the Heat, and they'll need the mercurial one to keep his poise vs. Duncan and not draw any unncessary technical fouls (or player fouls for that matter). Wallace likes to roam on the perimeter, so he will draw Duncan away from the basket. This will be a great matchup between two of the game's best players.

Advantage: San Antonio

Center

San Antonio: The most important trade of this season was pulled off by the Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford when he swapped power forward Malik Rose, draft picks and cash for center Nazr Mohammed. The Spurs faithful groaned when the trade was announced because Rose was as popular as any Spur, but the executives around the NBA privately wondered why Knick GM Isaiah Thomas was so stupid to take on Rose's bloated 42 million dollar salary and give San Antonio its missing piece to its championship puzzle. The brilliance of Buford was realized when Rasho Nesterovic went down late in the year with an injury and Mohammed was installed as the starter. Although Nesterovic is a solid defensive player and rebounder, he lacks Mohammed's quickness, and offensive scoring ability around the basket. Nesterovic will probably contribute much more against the slow-down Pistons than the up-tempo Nuggets, Sonics and Suns, so look for Mohammed to get about 25 minutes, and Nesterovic to get about 8 minutes a game (with Robert Horry drawing the rest).

Detroit: Big Ben Wallace won the Defensive Player of the Year award (for the 3rd time in four seasons) and coach Brown may use him to defend Duncan (and thus save Rasheed Wallace from drawing fouls). Wallace will get a "break" against San Antonio since he won't need to defend Shaquille O'Neal, and can use the energy he saves on defense to contribute more on offense. Wallace is one of the best rebounders in basketball (#2 at 12.2 a game) and will hurt the Spurs with his put-backs on missed shots. An area of concern for Detroit is that Wallace shoots 46.9% from the free throw stripe.

Advantage: Detroit

Bench

San Antonio: The Spurs have a HUGE edge on the bench. San Antonio is the deepest team in the league. In the off-season, the Spurs signed offensive stud Brent Barry and he has been key for them in the Playoffs (after a sub-par regular season). San Antone needs Barry to continue to hit the 3-point shot (like he did in Game 1 vs. the Suns) if they are to make Detroit pay for double-teaming Duncan, or clogging the lane to stifle Parker. Another big player for the Spurs off the bench is "Big Shot Bob" -- Robert Horry. Horry is going for his 6th NBA Championship ring, and he's NOT just a lucky guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time. He does a lot for the Spurs. He plays solid defense, makes steals, hits big shots at critical junctures in games, and does a lot of other little things that do not show up in the box score. Rounding out the Spurs' rotation are rookie guard Beno Udrih, Nesterovic, Devin Brown, Tony Massenburg and Glenn Robinson. Any of these players can make key contributions and Popovich is willing to play any of them at crunch time depending on the situation.

Detroit: This is a big weakness for Detroit. The Pistons really just have Antonio McDyess, Carlos Arroyo, and a couple of defensive specialists (center Elden Campbell and guard Lindsey Hunter). McDyess can contribute on offense and Arroyo's quickness will be needed to counter Tony Parker's speed. I think McDyess, Campbell and Hunter are past their prime, though they can be effective at times.

Advantage: San Antonio

Intangibles

San Antonio: The Spurs finished their Conference Finals series against Phoenix 5 days before Detroit clinched against Miami, so the Spurs got extra rest (though Popovich put them through some hard scrimmages). San Antonio also gets 4 of the possible 7 games at home, and the Spurs were a league-best 38-3 at home in the regular season.

Detroit: The Pistons are the defending Champions, and know how to play with their backs against the wall, as shown by their wins in Games 6 and 7 vs. the Heat.

Advantage: San Antonio

Odds

San Antonio has been made the clear favorite to win its 3rd Title in seven years. The oddsmakers have installed the Spurs as 6.5-point favorites in Game 1, and the series' odds are San Antonio -2.80, with Detroit coming back at +2.40. I'll be down in San Antonio this week to attend the Finals in person, and I have my fingers on the pulse of this series. Don't miss any of my side + total winners throughout this Championship battle here at this site. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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