When you look at the Spurs, certain assumptions can be made about how they'll perform against the Lakers in the second round of the playoffs. Tim Duncan will be great, giving his usual 28-point, 17-rebound, five-assist, three-block performance on a nightly basis with his signature Duncanesque fundamentals. Manu Ginobili will come off the bench with his reckless sense of urgency and impact the game at both ends of the floor. Bruce Bowen will tirelessly irritate, agitate and frustrate anyone misfortunate enough to get near him, especially if that particular person has the number 8 and B-R-Y-A-N-T on the back of his jersey. And, finally, Robert Horry will somehow end up with the ball when the game is on the line.
Despite all of these certainties, the fate of the Spurs lies in the hands of their 21-year-old point guard.
Don't get me wrong. It is not imperative that Parker to score big numbers for the Spurs to win (although it sure helps). This team is so well-rounded and defense-oriented that it can win even when Parker doesn't shoot well. Notice the words "can win." However, if Parker does in fact score well, the Spurs will win, as they almost always do. Parker needs to get involved early in each game of the series against the Lakers. He must have an aggressive mindset and take advantage of the Lakers' inability to defend the pick-and-roll action that is integral to the Spurs' offense.
Even if Parker struggles with his shooting, he must maintain constant pressure on the Lakers' defense. Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton are not the individual defenders they once were, particularly in transition. With that in mind, Parker needs to push the ball up the floor, get into the lane before the Lakers can get set defensively and create open shots for his teammates. More than anything, Parker must rise to the intimidation and experience the Lakers will attempt to throw at him. Based on what we've seen from the Spurs' playmaker thus far in the postseason, the answer to this question is an emphatic oui!
2. Will Kobe Bryant hurt the Lakers by taking his battle with Bruce Bowen too personally?
It is no secret that Kobe is one of the most talented all-around players in the NBA. No single player in the league is more capable of sinking a shot any time the inclination strikes. Very few defenders can honestly say they have any bearing on whether Kobe has an off night. It just so happens that one of those guys will be inside his jersey for the duration of the Lakers' second-round series.
Bowen, the Spurs' first-team All-Defense wing player, hates getting scored upon like Allen Iverson hates practice. Hates it like Mark Cuban hates suits and ties. Hates it like Robert Horry hates November through March. Are we getting the point here? Bowen is both tireless and relentless. He never lays on a screen, quits on a play or fails to get a hand up. Having said that, it is important to understand that Kobe Bryant is capable of having a big series against the Spurs. It all comes down to how Kobe operates within the offense. As demonstrated by his performance in the last meeting between these two teams, a Lakers loss in which Bryant shot a dismal 9-for-26, Kobe will struggle if the majority of his offensive opportunities are one-on-one situations against Bowen.
In that game, Bryant repeatedly abandoned the offense in an attempt to take the Spurs' stopper off the dribble. The result was a series of forced jumpers and tough drives into the best help defense in the NBA. Kobe must trust his teammates and be willing to be a playmaker as well as a scorer if the Lakers are to move on in their quest to regain the NBA championship that the Spurs wrestled away from L.A. last season. There will be other matchups more advantageous to the Lakers. Shaq versus Rasho Nesterovic might be a good place to start. Taking Kobe's competitiveness into account, the answer to question No. 2 is doubtful at best.
Going into the playoffs, the answer to this question was a resounding NO. And the Pistons have done their part (ousting the resilient Milwaukee Bucks in five games) to maintain the status quo. However, the Nets have forced a lot of folks to re-think their position on the their ability to make this a competitive series. I know, I can hear some of you saying it was the Knicks that New Jersey swept in the first round! That's not the point. It isn't the result of that series that really matters. It is the manner in which the Nets played that was impressive.
Obviously, the Nets are potent when they are able to get out and run in the open court. They have a starting quartet that any high-level track coach would be happy to see running the 4x100 relay. In Jason Kidd, Kerry Kittles, Richard Jefferson, and Kenyon Martin, the Nets possess arguably the fastest players in the NBA at their respective positions. Their speed and fastbreak skills were on display in Games 1 and 2 on the Nets' home floor as they buried the Knicks under a wave of layups, dunks and open jumpers. The impressive part, however, took place in Madison Square Garden. The Knicks, tired of being the New York Nationals to the Nets' role as the Harlem Globetrotters, slowed the game to a crawl and made it decidedly more physical. The Nets still won. In fact, they only had a moment of concern at the end of Game 3 which was quickly squelched when Stephon Marbury missed two late free throws.
Now the Nets have to be taken seriously against the Pistons. They have a look that will allow them to be competitive. It is the look of a winner, the look of a team that has been to the NBA Finals the past two seasons. A team that enjoys playing together. And the look of a proud competitor that won't back away from a challenge. Lawrence Frank has done a masterful job in trying to get his team to peak at the right time. I don't know if the Nets can score enough points to win this series, but at least now it will be interesting to watch.
Tim Legler, an NBA analyst for ESPN and former NBA 3-point champion, is a weekly contributor to ESPN.com during the NBA playoffs.