In the end, the defending champions lost twice, badly, against the team that everybody thought was not yet ready for prime time.
The San Antonio Spurs are a devastatingly good team. And they are still trying to figure out how to crack the the code on Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler, David West, Julian Wright, and the New Orleans Hornets.
Memo to the League: the Hornets are very ready for prime time. This is not the team you want to face.
Game 2 featured a ton of interesting stuff. Thoughts:
The Hornets with Tyson Chandler on the floor were +35 tonight. That's 27 minutes of premium game time when the defending champions were absolutely killed. Chandler -- once considered something of a bust in Chicago -- is playing splendid basketball at both ends of the floor. Everyone in the NBA has always wondered what it is you can do to limit the effectiveness of Tony Parker's penetration. The answer, it turns out, is to have Tyson Chandler on your team. The only time Parker ever got a halfway decent look at the rim was when Chandler was benched. Also, did you notice that Chandler was a peacemaker several times when players were a little heated?
One of my favorite things about the playoffs is watching the end-of-quarter interviews with Gregg Popovich. I say "interviews" but what they're really anti-interviews, as Coach Pop does an amazing job of communicating nothing at all except disdain for the process. I suspect that his goal throughout is merely to limit the number of times he is asked to do these kinds of things in the future. (And, a more serious point: Spurs fan also wonder why the general public doesn't like the Spurs. You could also ask why the Spurs don't like the general public. Coach Popovich and Tim Duncan are both rumored to be great, friendly guys, but in the media they communicate in the begrudging tone of a teenager forced to write a thank you card.)
Seeing some incredible lob passes made me wonder -- surely some of the most difficult alley-oop passes are tougher to complete than a shot. So why not shoot? Getting your teammates involved, different angles etc. ... I get it. But if you muff the shot, it's a potential offensive rebound, and if you muff the pass, it's a turnover.
I was in New Orleans in February, and I can tell you that in that stunningly beautiful mosaic of a city, it's nearly impossible to find a large group that is almost all white ... unless you look in the good seats at a Hornet game.
Threes. Steals. Stops of Manu freaking Ginobili. JULIAN WRIGHT! He changed this playoff game, and I suspect he will change more as his confidence continues to grow.
Chris Paul is working mind games on the Spurs. Bruce Bowen is physical and at times dirty. But Paul is setting traps for him -- looking for every opportunity to make a big fuss of getting himself hit, run into, and knocked over. And it's working. Not only are the Hornets getting some calls Spur opponents usually don't get, but the Spurs are, at times, devolving into whine-a-palooza.
One of the techniques that seems so effective in this series so far is fronting Tim Duncan in the post. Is this really a new idea? Why is it so much more effective now than when other teams have done it a zillion times before? Is it just about Tim Duncan being sick? I'd love to say it's a Tyson Chandler thing, but a lot of the time it's Melvin Ely keeping the big man from the ball.
Three players in the NBA, that I have noticed -- Bruce Bowen, Chris Paul, and Rajon Rondo -- use their feet as aggressive weapons while playing defense. Not just tripping, but also owning space where others would put their feet. That's how Chris Paul induced Jacque Vaughn to fall in the backcourt tonight. The word was that it was a hip check -- but their hips never touched. The foot trick is subtle and effective, especially as referees seldom call fouls on players for placing a foot here or there. A really dirty version of this trick, of course, is Bowen's patented "place a foot where the shooter's going to land" technique, which has, predictably, hurt several NBA ankles, yet is hard to notice and is seldom called.
David West got a little heated at one point, and Chris Paul said something to him about it. I don't know what Paul said, but he should have said: "Remember, you're quoted in today's paper telling everybody that you grew up wanting to be even-keeled like David Robinson."
One thing I really admire about the Hornets: holding a modest lead in the fourth quarter against a very dangerous team, they stayed super aggressive on offense. Where a lot of point guards would get careful, Chris Paul got lobbing to Tyson Chandler for dunks, made forays into the lane for tough layups, and kept the Spurs wondering where to focus.
Mike James told us he was ready. He finally sees the court and gets five points in two minutes of garbage time.
So, now you have to think: what's next? What does this mean? Don't teams that go up 2-0 almost always win? Could the Spurs really be done?
On the one hand, a 2-0 lead against the Spurs is not the same as a 2-0 lead against any old team. They Spurs are not going to quit, panic, make stupid mistakes, or stop trying new things. What's more, they will get more love from the referees in San Antonio, and that will make a big difference -- a lot of their game is about working the zebras, and they did not work them well in the first two games. The Spurs also have to be considered heavy favorites in any nail-biters, in which they are exquisitely coached.
With all those factors being true, what it really means is that to keep beating the Spurs, you actually have to be notably better.
Are the Hornets notably better? They just might be. They really haven't struggled much so far in these playoffs, and they have played some solid competition. The Hornets are for real.
(Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)