A quick look at how many points each team scored in their three wins gives us all that we need to know about their Game 7 focal points. The Spurs averaged 81.6 in their three road losses, never topping 84, but poured in an average of 103 points in their three home wins. The Hornets were no different, scoring 101.3 in New Orleans and just 86.3 in San Antonio. So the Spurs know they have to find ways to make a big time upgrade to their scoring, while New Orleans can just focus on doing what they've done in their three wins. Right? Well, maybe. "Same ole same ole" will probably not work against these champions.
There's no question that San Antonio has found somewhat of an elixir in dealing with the Hornets "Duncan-centric" defense. The Spurs have learned that the best way to get Tim Duncan the ball in scoring positions is to first feed the opposite post player, Fabricio Oberto or Kurt Thomas. Duncan's first four buckets in Game 6 came off this two-man game. Both players have the size to execute a quick post-to-post pass, which tend to be quicker and shorter than the guard-to-post passes that were constantly deflected or stolen earlier in the series. To slow this action down, the Hornets might focus a little more on denying the other post player the ball in solid "post passing" positions. Doing this, though, might open up more attacking angles for Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. In Game 1 of this series, it was clear that New Orleans totally committed to shutting down Duncan. It will be interesting to see where there priorities lie for Game 7.
New Orleans can also decide to simply leave the post player opposite Duncan open even after he catches the ball, forcing them to be more offensive minded rather than allowing his teammate to get a good pass off. Neither Oberto nor Thomas has done much scoring in this series. Coach Gregg Popovich might play Robert Horry for just this reason, hoping to punish New Orleans with a timely 3-pointer. Horry is 2-for-13 in the series, 1-for-6 from 3. Does "Big Shot Bob" have any magic left?
The most telling matchup of Game 7 might come down to Ginobili vs. Peja Stojakovic. When Ginobili is able to knock down his long two's and 3s, he becomes a matchup nightmare because he's so adept at shot-fake moves when players have to close him out hot. And since he's great at getting to the basket and finishing, he becomes impossible to stop when his midrange jump shot is on. Defenders can't take away both. We saw this in Game 6 -- oftentimes he's their best offensive player. The Spurs hope, of course, that he is on, so they can spread the floor and let him go to work. If Ginobili can hit his jump shots and rotate toward Parker on ball screen actions, the Hornets will be faced with the classic "pick your poison" dilemma. If he's not on, Ginobili must find a way to contribute offensively. Layups in transition, steals converted to baskets, offensive rebounds, or just plain hustle plays that end up with him at the free-throw line. In their seven postseason wins, Ginobili is averaging 21.7 points. In their four losses, he's at 15.5. He's at his best when playing creatively and confidently, so look for Popovich to take his hands off the wheel and let him "do his thing."
Stojakovic has a similar impact for New Orleans. He really stretches the floor, drawing his defender tight and leaving Chris Paul to lead a 4-on-4 attack that heavily advantages the offense. Bruce Bowen might be San Antonio's best help defender, so his attention to staying with Stojakovic limits his ability to shade Paul on dribble drives. Paul is too good to be slowed for long in 4-on-4 games, so ultimately help has to come from the fifth defender. This is where Stojakovic can be such a difference maker. In their seven wins, he's averaged 17.4 points, but has averaged just 10 in their four losses. Maybe more importantly, he's made 22 3-pointers in those wins, and five in the losses. If Paul can carve up the Spurs' defense early on, using ball screens, then at some point Stojakovic will be needed to finish the deal. Energy from the crowd can carry a team far in Game 7s, so the Spurs must find Stojakovic early in New Orleans transition game, or they'll hear the deafening noise that follows a Stojakovic 3.
David West might be the other deciding factor. If he can get buckets inside and hit his outside jumper, which will force the Spurs to double or crowd him inside, then the Spurs really won't have any foundation to defend the Hornets' offense. When two players demand extra-special attention, the defense melts. Look for the Spurs to defend him tightly early on, being physical, and not allowing him to simply square and shoot. If West gets off on a bad rhythm, then the Spurs can relax some and help more on Paul.
Each team has inside-outside threats that can change the tide of the game, and both teams are blessed with big-time difference makers at the point. It's likely that both Paul and Parker have big games -- they are too good in the pick-and-roll game to be slowed much. But if either guy is experiencing a breakout performance, his team's chances at winning go way up. San Antonio will let Parker push the tempo and play with end line-to-end line passion and aggression. New Orleans will get the same from Paul.
In the end, as hard as it is to think that this Spurs team will not even make the conference finals, it's even harder to envision New Orleans playing a bad home game. Crushing the Spurs at home for three straight times gives them tremendous confidence, much needed in a pressure packed game. Still, the Spurs are so resourceful, and they have a few guys on the bench who can make important plays at pivotal times. This game should not be a blowout, and might well exceed 48 minutes. I'm flipping my coin now, and it comes up ...
PREDICTION: Hornets win Game 7
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.