Multiple challenges are facing the San Antonio Spurs as they head into Game 3 on Thursday: First, how can they fix their terrible third quarters; second, what can they do to slow the combination of David West, Peja Stojakovic and Chris Paul; finally, how can the Spurs get Manu Ginobili to play better and Tony Parker to shoot better? To get back in this series, San Antonio has to score more often -- and more efficiently -- and defend far better, but there is legitimate concern that they can't.
Breaking down the Spurs' third-quarter collapses is a must because they've been outscored 65-35 in Games 1 and 2 combined. New Orleans executed its offense to near perfection, patiently waiting for matchup advantages to develop and finishing looks at a high percentage. The Spurs played solid defense on many of these possessions, but still suffered some glaring defensive breakdowns that must be addressed.
For one, Ginobili got whipped by a Stojakovic jab-and-go move for an easy layup. He must defend Stojakovic better straight up by containing him and forcing him to shoot contested jumpers. Another time Ginobili helped Parker double-team Morris Peterson in the midpost, but Peterson broke containment and made another layup. The Spurs simply have to tighten up on the little things and execute their defensive plan better.
Stojakovic has been a backbreaker with his perimeter shooting, going 7-for-11 from the 3-point line, with some open looks coming off of offensive rebound kickouts. The Spurs might consider shadowing him in these situations, assigning one guy to immediately run to him once a shot is taken. Finding him in transition faster is another key. Doing so opens up driving lanes for Paul, but the key for the Spurs should be keeping Stojakovic from getting going the way he has been.
Defending Paul is another matter altogether. It's clear that he is getting anywhere he wants to in the half-court action, so San Antonio might have to start chasing and doubling him. Instead of doubling him on every possession or just on ball screens, the Spurs can jump him when he gets to certain spots on the floor, such as the sidelines or the corners. The Spurs are likely to blitz ball screens as well, with a third defender running early to Stojakovic and the other two guys zoning up inside. From one possession to the next, San Antonio seems to be caught between taking away Paul's passing options and playing him straight up. Picking a strategy and sticking with it for a quarter or a half might be the answer.
Of course, the Hornets are used to these tactics, having just come through a Dallas series in which the Mavericks employed different defensive strategies designed to stop Paul. None worked because New Orleans does well in keeping great spacing and maintaining patience. Plus, West is adept as a pressure-release receiver and a passer.
San Antonio must ramp up its offense, and getting back to a slashing and screening game might help. When the Spurs just stand around in four-around-one sets, the Hornets play a "soft," sagging man-to-man, looking to immediately double Tim Duncan when he catches in the post. One possession in the third quarter speaks volumes about the Spurs' offensive woes: They threw seven passes in the half court, with all five players touching the ball, but nobody ever moved and the ball ultimately ended up in Duncan's hands in the midpost. He was double-teamed, and he turned it over. Sealing the weak side for a 3, driving and kicking and then posting Duncan, or simple backscreen shape-ups for Duncan inside are all the kinds of actions we should expect to see in San Antonio. Because it's hard -- if not impossible -- to double a guy when he catches the ball in front of the rim, Duncan needs to be more demanding in regard to where he catches the ball, rather than settling for outside-the-paint looks.
Additionally, Parker might look to make a stronger commitment to run, because that could get him some easier looks at the basket.
The Hornets are not afraid to switch big/small ball screens because they run double-teams to mismatches anyway. Even Paul rotated onto Duncan inside on a few possessions. These were situations that San Antonio failed to capitalize on in New Orleans, but it can expect to handle them better at home. If the Spurs can score more, they will add pressure to New Orleans and its shooters to keep up.
Many of San Antonio's half-court sets have been pushed too far out on the perimeter, with players catching the ball in spots outside of their shooting range. Staying inside their range forces the Hornets' defenders to stay tighter on them, thus opening up space inside. If a Spurs defender lags off the ball in order to clog the lane, then his man can quickly become a shooter. This will help Ginobili more than anyone else because he's had numerous turnovers trying to force passes inside. In the first two games, he's just 4-for-14 from 3, with eight turnovers.
If San Antonio can't defend New Orleans better than it has, and if the Hornets stay red hot from 3, this series is over -- maybe not in four games, but over nonetheless. The combination of Paul, West and Stojakovic is just too tough to stop when Stojakovic is on. As stated in our Game 2 report, New Orleans is the better team. But the Spurs are a team so full of pride and toughness that we can expect a terrific effort from them in Game 3. Parker and Ginobili should get on track in both the perimeter and midrange game, and Duncan will finish better inside. The Spurs are in need of an energy infusion, and their crowd will be there for them.
PREDICTION: Spurs win Game 3
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.