Sunday, May 20, 2007

Life Goes On

After an appropriate period of mourning over the Suns-Spurs playoff series, S.O.L. is ready to talk about the Western Conference Finals.

It's hard to pick against the Spurs. They're deep, smart, physical, play great defense and most important, they're on a serious roll. Nothing is as important in the playoffs of any of the major sports -- nothing -- than getting hot. How many times have we seen the blistering team beat the better one on their way to an improbable title? Too many times to list here -- and in this case, the blistering team is arguably the better team anyway. But does that mean we should just anoint the Spurs as Western Conference Champions?


The Jazz aren't playing half bad either. And they're built for the playoffs. On top of that, surprisingly for a Jerry Sloan-coached team, they score a lot of points and they run a lot.

I think the matchup will come down to Utah's outside shooting -- which will decide who goes on to represent the West in the NBA Finals. The Spurs have a very, very good interior defense -- as they proved against the Suns. If they can stop the best distributor in the league in his sneaker tracks, then there's no reason to think they can't stop a mere mortal from getting to the basket. However, Utah has two things the Suns didn't have. They have bigs who can shoot outside (Mehmet Okur, Andrei Kirilenko) and they've got a strong, tough inside post-up game (Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap). On top of that, AK 47 can also play a pretty decent point forward and it's hard to stop dribble penetration by a guy who's 6-9 but as rangy as a seven-footer.

Deron Williams, Derek Fisher and AK will get into the lane and if Okur is his usual accurate three-point shooting self, Utah has a chance to spread the floor in a way that Phoenix only did in spurts against the Spurs. Forcing Duncan (and/or Francisco Elson and Fabricio Oberto) to guard Boozer one-on-one will play right into to Utah's hands. And here's where the refs could play a role in the outcome -- Boozer is a master at getting to the line and he continued doing this in the first two rounds. If he can get his share of free throws, that could be a problem for San Antonio. They're deep, yes, but there is a precipitous decline from Duncan and Horry to Oberto, Elson and then to Matt Bonner.

On defense, the Jazz have the big bodies and physical play to slow down Manu Ginobli and keep him from taking over the game like he did in Games 5 and 6 against the Suns.

The big concern for the Jazz will be stopping Tony Parker from dashing around the floor like a speed demon. Williams is going to be great one day but he's still prone to getting into foul trouble and he will have his hands full staying in front of Parker. If he's got two fouls in the first eight minutes, the Jazz don't have a chance.

The X-factor has got to be Derek Fisher, a familiar thorn in the side of the Spurs. How much his veteran leadership adds to the mix, whether he can hit those clutch shots down the stretch like he did against Golden State – those can be turning points, one way or the other.

The Jazz are an underrated team in part because there is a consensus that they lucked out in drawing a second-round matchup against Golden State, the eighth and last seed in the West, instead of number one, 67-win, MVP carrying, juggernaut of Dallas. But the Warriors were not your typical eight seed. Injuries put them in a hole the first half of the season and they not only fought out of it, they imposed their will on the basketball court in getting into the postseason and all but sweeping the Mavs out in the first round.

They play a frantic, scrambling, all-hands defense, like the Orcs in Lord of the Rings attacking the castle in waves upon waves upon waves upon waves. If you can withstand that sort of pressure – and the way the Warriors almost never quit and made shot after improbable shot – you can call yourself a proven playoff performer. If that doesn’t give you confidence that you can win it all, nothing will.

While the Spurs have to feel confident, too, you’d have to think they feel lucky to have been able to dispatch the Suns in six games. Lucky that the League disemboweled Phoenix by suspending two players who didn’t throw a punch – and that the guy who did throw one, is back on the bench in uniform for today's Game One.

They should feel that they are better than Utah, of course, but who could blame them for having a seed of doubt in the back of their minds about what went down in Round One? Yeah, right. Doesn't sound like a Gregg Popovich-coached team, does it? Well, the truth is that over the years the Spurs have been at times mentally soft (2004 vs. the Lakers for example) and anyone who has seen Duncan on the free-throw line knows he can have lapses in confidence.

It’s obvious no doubt, but if Utah is to have a chance in this series, they need to assert it today, in game one. This team has to come out firing, has to keep the pressure on, has to play like this possession right here might be the difference between a trip to the finals and a trip home.

Tomorrow: finally, S.O.L. talks about the East.

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