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09 June 2005

NBA Finals Preview

I don't know, people. I wish I did.

Against Denver I knew. Their winning streak? A mirage with a favorable schedule and timely injuries as its foundation. Their main offensive weapons? The fast break and Carmelo, both which played right into the teeth of the Spurs defense. Their defense? No answers for Parker or The Sickness.

Against Seattle I had a good idea. Ray Allen? A great offensive player going against his nemesis who had (allegedly) undercut his way into Ray's head. A defensive liability who would likely be neutralized by Manu (Ray tallied 6 more total points than Ginobili in the series; it only took him 49 more FGA to do it). Their other main offensive weapons, Rashard and Radmanovic? Both gimpy and both heavily reliant on the 3 which the Spurs defend better than anyone. Their defense? No one who could guard The Cornerstone without getting into foul trouble. No one who could stay in front of Parker or Ginobili. (In the spirit of fairness and squashing dissent: the Sonics did give the Spurs the most trouble so far and played better than I expected.)

I knew enough about Phoenix not to be worried. Too reliant on the three and the fast break. Comically thin. Matched up horribly against the Spurs; having no one who had a prayer in a one on one matchup against any of The Big Three. Allowed easy buckets way too often. Horrible coaching.

I didn't give any of those teams a real chance at beating the Spurs in a seven game series. But Detroit? Chauncey, Rasheed, Rip, Ben and Tay Tay? I just don't know.

My apprehension has little to do with Detroit's success last year. Rosters change. Players themselves change. Opponents change. People who say "Detroit should be favored because they're the defending champs" are either too stupid or too afraid to say anything of value; to actually have an opinion.

During the regular season the Spurs showcased three primary offensive weapons.

1. Tim on the block.

Against Detroit he'll face the tandem of Rasheed, Ben and McDyess. But the vast majority of the time he'll be going against Rasheed, who I consider to be the best pure one-on-one defender against Duncan. He's long and positions himself well. He guards you the whole possession, not just when the ball is on your side of the court. He doesn't bite on upfakes and makes a point of actually boxing you out after the shot.

But I'm hoping Rasheed is too good. You don't contain Duncan with great post defense. You contain him by doubling him the minute he dribbles the ball and beating the ever living shit out of him at every opportunity. That's what the Lakers did. That was the modus operandi of The Ringless Choker. I don't think Larry Brown and Rasheed will stoop to that level; I think they're too prideful, too enwrapped in "the right way," too good.

Don't get me wrong, TD will not effortlessly drop 30 like he did against Phoenix. But I would bet dimes to dollars that he'll enjoy this matchup more than playing against The Scrub Gang of Seattle.

2. Tony Parker iso / pick and roll.

Here's where my apprehension begins to mount. Everybody says Larry Brown is a great coach. Well, personally, I will get a very good idea of his greatness in the first 12 minutes of game 1.

For some reason, probably a combination of pride, stubbornness and stupidity, both Seattle and Phoenix started their series playing Parker straight up. Going over the top of pick and rolls and engaging Parker too aggressively instead of playing 6 feet off him and inviting him to shoot. It inexplicably took both of these teams 2 whole games to figure out how to mitigate The Wee Frenchman. Numerical evidence: TP averaged 26 points in the first two games, 14.9 thereafter (never again going over 18 points).

If Larry Brown is deserving of his reputation you will see Billups camped out at the free throw line when TP brings the ball up the court in the first stanza of game 1. Chauncey is a good defender (having the physical presence that bothers TP) but has zero chance of staying in front Parker. Granted, he has the shot blockers to back him up, but I cannot think of one thing Detroit gains from guarding Tony in a traditional manner.

3. Give the ball to The Sickness.

I have watched all but one Spurs game since the All Star Break. I have noted two factors that limit Manu's production: his frustrating proclivity for passing up wide open jumpers and his lack of durability. In other words, I have yet to see another team use a certain player or employ a discernable strategy that slows down Manu. This has been readily apparent throughout the playoffs (you can find the numerical evidence in about seventeen different places in my blog).

But Detroit has The TayTay. I have what I hope proves to be an irrational fear of The TayTay, mainly because if I had to choose one guy to guard Manu it would be, uh huh, The TayTay. Because, like The Sickness, there's something not quite right about him.

Have you ever watched an NBA game while on the phone? You're sort of watching the game but 90% of your attention is devoted to the conversation. It takes either something amazing or something odd to pull you back into the game. Like The TayTay coming from out of nowhere and into a sea of Mourning and Chack for a put back dunk that was at the same time thunderous and adroit.

The TayTay doesn't fit. The TayTay doesn't have an NBA body. The TayTay doesn't have a pretty shot. The TayTay is a conundrum wrapped in an enigma. Smothered in an aromatic white wine sauce.

I once had a veal shank stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella on top of a bed of carmelized onions wrapped in bacon. I think if we wrapped The TayTay in bacon he would become a limitless source of clean burning energy. He would also gain the ability to play every Black Sabbath guitar solo on accordion.

The TayTay is 6'-9" with a wingspan of a seven footer. He was born in Compton and his underarm hair is finely spun silk. He was 49th in the NBA in PPFGA this season and sleeps on sheets with a thread count no less than 500.

The Sickness does not have a traditional offensive game. He zag zigs and over-crosses. He does reverse layups on the non-reverse side of the basket. He prefers 8-foot finger rolls over wide open 3s. He has long hair and a bald spot. He'll drop 30+ including various one-offs and posterizations and then carry a man purse to the press conference. He's left handed and has a big nose.

How do you counteract the Counter Act? You throw a non-traditional defensive player at him. The TayTay can play 5 feet off you and still contest your shot. The TayTay weighs 10 pounds more than Beno Udrih but is difficult to post up. The TayTay isn't fast but will chase you down. The TayTay is left handed and has a weird looking face.

I've long said I don't know how I would go about guarding The Sickness. I also don't know how I would go about attacking The TayTay. The similarities are troubling. Disconcerting even. Both underpaid, both too passive, both on the cusp.

You remember that part in Back to the Future where Marty asks Doc what would happen if he ran into himself in the future? Doc tells him "the encounter could create a time paradox, the results of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space-time continuum and destroy the entire universe. Granted, that's the worst case scenario. The destruction might, in fact, be very localised, limited to merely our own galaxy."

That's some scary shit, people. Would anyone be that surprised if two years from now The TayTay has the type of postseason Manu is having now? If you had to pick an the heir-apparent to The Sickness would it not be The TayTay? Is it not possible that I will soon be referring to The TayTay as "The Affliction" or "The Malady."

You have to understand the reason for my fears: this series, this season rides on the back of Manu Ginobili. Parker is a consistent jumper away from being Robin to Duncan's Batman. Ginobili's been the guy dominating occasional games in the playoffs (game 3 against Denver (32) and game 5 against Seattle (39) stand out). Ginobili's the lynchpin, the X-factor, the je ne sais quois, the player that keeps Larry Brown up at nights. So if The TayTay manages to hold The Sickness to under 15 points a game this series will be over before it starts. "Granted that's the worst case scenario," but if Manu goes for around 18-20 PPG the Spurs still lose in 7.

Allow me to simplify: the Spurs will need 25 a night from The Sickness to win the 2004-2005 NBA Championship.

Can The TayTay slow him down? Will he? I don't know. And that's what scares me.

(An aside: some people have pointed out that Tayshaun couldn't guard Wade and therefore will not be able to slow Ginobili. Um. OK people. I have a strong, strong man love for Manu, but he's a notch below Wade. Dwyane has the better first step, the better pull up jumper, more strength and more explosive ability. Simmer down.)

As you can see, the Spurs 3 main offensive weapons play right into Detroit's defensive strengths. Which means I am forced to hope that Pop has the flexibility to go to Plan D. But before I get into that I want to squeeze in some talk about Detroit's offense.

The Pistons' offensive efficiency ranked ~15th (knickerblogger.net is down at the moment) during the regular season.

They like to run Rip off a bazillion screens and get him that 18-20' jumper that's his specialty. Bruce Bowen lives for this: shutting down the opposing team's best wing player. I think he, combined with the Spurs big men hedging a little to prevent Rip's elbow curl, will do a more than adequate job on Hamilton.

Billups and 'Sheed will likely be involved in numerous pick and rolls. This is a little frightening considering Nazr's tenuous hold on how to defend the pick and roll. Don't be surprised to see The Solid Slovenian get 15-20 minutes a game this series. Prevent Chauncey's penetration and open looks and let Rasheed shoot the outside jumpers he loves so much.

Billups and Tayshaun will also attempt to post up Parker and Ginobili. I'm more worried about the latter because Prince has a more refined post game. I never really understood automatically posting up larger guards against smaller ones. Size advantage doesn't mean all that much if you don't know what to do with it. Billups is a dangerous offensive player but not because of his drop step or baby hook.

Detroit is a good offensive team. But I think their skill lies as much in their execution then in their skill level. They don't take bad shots, especially down the stretch. They don't turn the ball over. They don't get rattled (Billups is as cool as they come). On the other hand, they aren't going to offensively blow you out of the water, either. Which leads us back to the Spurs offense and Plan D.

At some point during the first two games the offense will bog down. Parker will be off from the outside. Duncan will be in the midst of a workman like 25 on 20 FGA. Manu will be trying too hard to draw the foul. Barry will be practicing his double-clutch set shot. Horry will actually miss some 3 pointers. At this point P.J. Carlesimo will whisper something in Pop's ear. It will sound just like the voice in Field of Dreams...

Let them go.

You've done your job Pop. You've made savvy draft selections. You've fostered the growth of Tony Parker and reigned in Manu Ginobili to a manageable level. You've convinced a group of 12 hypertalented, well paid and egotistical NBA players to commit to defense at a level seldom seen outside of the NCAAs. You've been controlling but fair. And the whole time you have deflected all praise and accolades. It's taken how many years to get to this point?

But now it's finally time. Time to release the reins and give the fastest point guard in the league the green light. Time to tell Manu to just go without fear of consequences. Release the hounds Pop.

I want to see Parker roaring down the court, faster than the Pistons can retreat. I want to see Manu going right at people and turning them around like a top with a little herk and a little jerk. I want to see Barry flying in from the wing for the reverse layup. I want to see Duncan grab a long rebound on an errant 3P attempt from Wallace and proceed to lead the break, finishing with a no look pass to whoever for an easy layup.

I want to see the boring San Antonio Spurs run the defending champs right out of the damned gym.

Because that's where we have them clearly beat. You don't win 59 games (while Duncan misses 16) without offensive flexibility. You don't dominate a 62 win Phoenix team while playing their game without having a little something extra.

Force Detroit to play a game they don't want to play. Trust your players to make the right decisions and get back on defense. Trust in all those times Parker blew by half of the opposing team for a layup. Trust your memories of Manu getting a rebound at the free throw line, dribbling right past a sprinting Al Harrington and dunking right in Tyronn Lue's mug.

Let. Them. Go.

*****

Maybe I am being overly cynical, but I don't see Pop adjusting his offense until there's a mountain of evidence suggesting he do so. I see Detroit eeking out a victory in one of the first two games in San Antonio while Parker struggles with his jumper. The Spurs make a concerted effort to push the ball for the remainder of the series and take games 3 and 5. They'll close it out at home in game 6 behind a huge game from The Sickness. The MVP will be Timmeh! and I will vehemently disagree. This leads to me writing 15 000 words about the greatness of Ginobili and will contain statistical evidence that he, not Isaac Newton, is responsible for the Universal Law of Gravitation.

Spurs in 6. Game on.

(Note: You can read another series preview (from a slightly different viewpoint) here. )

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All content copyright Matthew Powell 2005.