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Spurs/Sonics preview

   by Al McMordie - 05/08/2005

Seattle vs. San Antonio

The Wild Wild Western Conference REALLY gets going on Sunday night, as Nate McMillan's Seattle Sonics arrive in San Antonio for what should be a barn-burner of a series.

For history buffs, these two teams have met in the post-season twice before. In 1982, San Antonio upset Seattle 4 games to 1 in the quarterfinals, and in 2002, the Spurs defeated the Sonics 3 games to 2 in an opening round series where Tim Duncan missed a game due to his father's death.

Unlike San Antonio, who has been the favorite to win the title since last summer, Seattle is this year's surprise. No one (not even team President Wally Walker) could have expected Seattle to make the playoffs, much less advance to the quarter finals, after losing guard Brent Barry to the Spurs in the off season. But the Sonics quickly came together, and certainly the league's new interpretation of the rules (allowing less contact on the perimeter) has freed up sharp-shooters like Ray Allen. Indeed, the Sonics were one of only three teams to go into San Antonio and come away with a victory in the regular season, and were 2-2 in their season series vs. the Spurs.

San Antonio opened up as a 12-1 pick to defeat Seattle (with the Sonics coming back at +800), and these odds have come down a bit, as money has flowed in on Seattle. Now, Gregg Popovich's crew is a 10-1 favorite, with Seattle coming back at +700. In Game 1, San Antonio has been installed as an 8.5-point favorite, and the total is 189.

San Antonio has largely been built through the draft, with superstars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili coming to the Alamo City via that route. But General Manager extraordinaire R.C. Buford has surrounded his key athletes with great "role players" like defensive specialist Bruce Bowen (who can also hit the 3-point shot from the corner), centers Rasho Nesterovic and Nazr Mohammed, and veterans Robert Horry and the aforementioned Barry.

Seattle has two great players in Allen (32.4 ppg vs. Sacramento in Round One) and forward Rashard Lewis (16.5 ppg vs. Sacramento), and fills out its starting five with guard Luke Ridnour (8.4 ppg), forward Reggie Evans (7.4 rebounds) and center Jerome James (17.2 ppg and 9.4 rebounds).

Gregg Popovich made a great coaching move against Denver when he inserted Barry into the starting line-up and brought the All-Star Ginobili off the bench. That enabled Barry to play more with Duncan, and thus get open looks, while Ginobili's energy and offense were more valuable with the 2nd unit, when Duncan and Parker were resting. This gave the Spurs a much more balanced team throughout the game, and Denver was unable to compete with San Antonio over the last four games.

The Seattle/San Antonio series, though, will be different since James will NOT be able to average 17 points and 9 rebounds against the Spurs' front line of Duncan, Nesterovic, Horry and Mohammed. But Lewis' numbers should increase, as he won't face double-teams by San Antonio. Popovich may re-insert Ginobili back into the starting line-up specifically to defend Lewis, as Ginobili is quicker than Barry. The Spurs will then double-team Lewis on occasion with a second defender coming from the opposite side of the court, down the baseline. I also look for McMillan to use Vladimir Radmanovic more than he did vs. the Kings. Against Sacramento, Nick Collison often got the call off the bench, but Radmanovic will be more beneficial to Seattle since his shooting will stretch San Antonio's defense out to the perimeter. And the Spurs are most dangerous against teams who prefer to penetrate the middle of the lane, since Duncan and Nesterovic are there to block shots. If Seattle can make more than 40 percent of its 3-point shots (like it did in its two victories vs. the Spurs this season), then an upset is a possibility.

Even though the money is flowing on Seattle to win this series, I like San Antonio to survive. Parker has a big advantage over Ridnour at the point, and Duncan, Mohammed, Nesterovic and Horry have a big advantage over James, Evans, and Danny Fortson inside. Although Lewis and Allen are great players, they can be neutralized by San Antonio's. The Spurs completely shut down Denver after Game 1, and Bowen has gotten inside Allen's head so much (Allen has criticized Bowen for playing "sissy basketball") that I wonder how effective Allen will be in this series when the going gets tough.

Like the other Western Conference semi-finals, this will be great basketball to watch, and should go at least six games. But the Spurs will win. Good luck as always...Al McMordie.

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