Injuries are starting to become a story line in the Conference Semi-Finals. Kobe's back, Chauncey's hamstring, David West and Tyson Chandler's back and toe respectively. In closing out the Magic last night, it looked like Billups could have gone for the Pistons if necessary, but since the Magic were in self-destruct mode, losing a game they could have won, they had the luxury of resting Mr. Big Shot, and waiting until Boston and the Cavs get through with their slug fest. Kobe is said to be giving it a go tonight against the Jazz; obviously he will be critical to the Lakers chances, especially in a Game 5 matchup, because Gasol won't be able to carry the team without the newly crowned MVP.
NO's third quarter fueled victory over San Antonio was impressive, considering West grimaced in pain after every time he took Oberto, Thomas or Duncan to the hole, or hit a 15 foot jumper. The Xavier grad kept the Hornets alive in the first half, who according to TNT's Craig Sager watched clips from Denzel Washington's "Remember the Titans" before the game. Given the Hornets' perimeter rotation on defense in the first two quarters, I could have sworn they were watching a season long compilation of the Wolves defensive lowlights. The Spurs spaced and moved the ball for open looks from downtown, hitting treys to take a three point lead at the end of the half. Other than West, no starter had showed any rhythm for Orleans; letting Bonzi Wells and Jannero Pargo come off the bench seemed almost a tragedy, jacking and clanging shots on offense. An interesting side note for Wolves fans: despite Pargo's overall shooting woes in the playoffs, former Wolves major free agent acquisition Mike James can't get off the pine for the Hornets.
In the second half--particularly the third quarter--the tenor of the game changed. Orleans bared their teeth defensively, showing renewed energy and aggression, closing out on the Spurs on almost every shot., in a 28-11 domination. Chris Paul lived in the paint, scoring and dishing via his penetration. His shot wasn't all there last night, going for 6 for 18, but once again we can see the value of a player who understands the power of assists. Lebron James also understood that in his last game against the Celtics. If the shots aren't dropping, the ability to penetrate and facilitate ball movement in order to set up your teammate's scoring opportunities can be as critical. Paul had 14 assists last night; the Hornets as a team had 24, with only 6 turnovers. The combination of Paul and West--who despite his pain never stopped scoring--were too much for the Spurs to handle.
Still, even with a close-out game approaching, don't count the Spurs out. Chandler could not return to the game late in the fourth, and West clearly is hurting. There's no one off the Hornets bench who could buffer the loss of those two key players in the Orleans rotation. The Spurs are a tough minded bunch, and given the home court blow outs, if San Antonio can force a Game 7 back in NO with those two less than 100%, Paul may have to have the game of his life to put the Hornets over. Or, they might have peel James off the bench to help them score and defend.
Now that WOULD be a significant problem for New Orleans.