|From swamp to Alamo, with love|
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist
The Grand Finale is about to commence, showcasing the formidable and contrasting styles of the Nets and the Spurs. San Antonio wants to maximize the smooth yet irresistible dominance of Tim Duncan by slowing the pace and playing half-court basketball. And it's no secret that New Jersey counts on Jason Kidd to get their offense off and running.
But let's take a closer look ...
Even though the Nets had a lengthy 10-day hiatus between their termination of the Pistons and the start of the Finals, which theoretically should lead to "rust" problems, and the Spurs' break was a reasonable five days, the advantage here goes to New Jersey for two reasons: The sprained ankle that J-Kidd suffered when the Nets last played greatly benefited from the extra time. Also, the Spurs offense is based on precision and timing, characteristics that quickly grow stiff and cranky with too much down-time -- while the Nets full-speed-ahead offense is too explosive to gather rust.
Also, forget about the Spurs' spurious "homecourt advantage." In the Eastern Conference finals, the home teams were 2-2 — in the West, the home boys were 1-5. At this level, the homecourt edge is strictly imaginary.
However, the 2-3-2 championship format involves considerably less traveling and more time between games than the 2-2-1-1-1 setup of the conference finals. The slight advantage goes to the Nets here, because of their more strenuous and headlong job description.
What, then, must each team do to earn the gold rings?
Play him straight-up, concede his 40 points, and shut down everybody else. The biggest danger here is that Duncan might very well shoot 20 free throws and cripple the Nets big men with foul trouble. Kenyon Martin is too valuable to be saddled with too many early fouls, but Rodney Rogers and Brian Scalabrine are expendable. And here's where Dikembe Motumbo might be useful at last — if his six fouls can buy 10 minutes of daylight, then his season will be at least a mitigated success. This tactic can work but necessitates a game-long commitment to be effective.
Any zone that clusters around the low-posted Duncan also leaves the middle vulnerable for swift penetrations by Tony Parker. This might not be a bad idea, though, since Parker is liable to force shots and make risky passes in the lane. Also working in the Nets' favor here is that they are more athletic than the Spurs and are much quicker to seal defensive holes in the paint.
What else can be done to contain Duncan? Try to muscle him off his favorite spots. Try to force him to turn baseline, then quickly plug the paint with another big man — this will hopefully induce Duncan to shoot jumpers without benefit of the backboards.
If, and when, Duncan is doubled in the post, the Nets should jump him on the move, not the catch. Duncan is so big and long that doubling him when he receives an entry pass allows him to calmly scan the floor until he can identify (and unload the ball to) an open teammate. (It should be noted that Duncan is better at passing to perimeter players than to cutters.) However, TD does have considerable trouble picking up his dribble (especially going left) and executing an efficient pass, which is why he must be two-timed as soon as he puts the ball on the floor.
Even though the referees will be reluctant to saddle the Double-MVP with early foul trouble, Duncan should be attacked at the defensive end. The Nets are advised to post and iso Martin whenever their running game is unavailable.
Also, if Parker is guarding Kidd, then attack him in the low-post. Whenever a point guard moves into the pivot, the opposing defense is always bent and stretched out of shape. Besides, Kidd is the Nets' best low-post operator.
Jackson is a surprisingly accurate spot-shooter and a devastating penetrator when given an alley along the baseline. Push him into the middle, however, and Jackson will make silly mistakes.
When competing against up-tempo teams, both Parker and Jackson are apt to abandon the Spurs' station-to-station game plan and make decisions too quickly and too recklessly. Reducing Duncan's touches leaves Parker and Jackson to their own devices and greatly enhances the Nets' cause.
Except for one blocked shot and one put-back per game, David Robinson can be mostly ignored. Indeed, if he is on the court at the end of a close game, the Admiral should be clobbered and sent to the foul line every time he touches the ball.
Malik Rose is a bona fide warrior and the reason why TD cannot be doubled with another big man. Letting Rose loose in the shadow of the basket is always a risky business, but attempting to defend him with a wingman while the strong forward doubles Duncan is suicide.
Ginobili is a much more electric player. Let him go right, but prevent him from spinning left, Bogart him at every turning, make him shoot under pressure, and let Jefferson work him in the low post.
Furthermore, there's no need for Kidd to wear himself out by chasing the mercurial Parker all over the court. Have him guard Jackson and assign Parker to the leansome, quick-footed, and long-limbed Kerry Kittles.
But containing Duncan is crucial. Whenever Duncan touches the ball and has time and space enough to consider his options, the Spurs' offense becomes deliberate and effective.
On offense, the Nets' will obviously try to turn the game into a track meet. But since precious few fast breaks can be initiated after made baskets, New Jersey's running game depends entirely upon their defense. (Watch the Nets reach up to snatch successful shots out of the bottom of the net, then hop out-of-bounds, and pass quickly to Kidd. Also look for the nets to be slightly shorter and looser in New Jersey than in San Antonio.) And the last act of any defensive sequence is rebounding. For the Nets to win, they must control their defensive glass.
Whenever their running game stalls, the Nets will mostly rely on their iffy outside shooting. Lucious Harris must break out of his month-long slump. Kittles, Kidd and Rogers must also make the net dance.
That's why the Nets are done if they can't run.
However, in Games 5 and 6, Dallas' elastic zones allowed precious few opportunities for Duncan to maneuver himself into scoring position. San Antonio countered by relocating Duncan at the high post (where it's well nigh impossible to double anybody), and also involving him in screen/rolls near the left-foul-line extended. Look for more of the same against the Nets.
But there's another twist that the Spurs used only once or twice against the Mavs that would pose a particularly deadly threat to the Nets' defense: Instead of moving the ball to a stationary Duncan, have him move to the ball. From the low- to the high-post, or vice versa. Or, even better, from one box to the other. A subsequent catch, spin and shoot will render New Jersey defenseless.
In this scenario, the Nets' only recourse will be to play some kind of bottom-heavy zone (a 2-3 that moves into a 2-1-2 if Duncan comes to the high-post, or a 2-1-2 that moves into a 2-3 if he crosses the paint) that's susceptible to swing passes. Even so, Duncan's baseline movement will create wide-open spaces in front of Parker, Jackson, Ginobili and/or Bowen. And should Duncan hitch himself to the high-post, Rose will be free to terrorize the paint.
For sure, the Nets have the NBA's most underrated defense. Nobody's quicker to rotate to, and to close out perimeter shooters. And nobody's better at digging, snipping and jumping into help position in the lane. All the more reason why the Nets' defensively challenged players must be mercilessly attacked. This means running face-up isos against Rodney Rogers and (should he be resurrected from the depths of the bench) Motumbo.
If the efficacy and patience of their own offense are the primary considerations in stopping the Nets' fearsome fast breaks, the Spurs must also get back on defense. Send only one (or at most two) bigs to the offensive glass, and compel everybody else to start racing uphill as soon as a shot is launched.
Deprived of the chance to run themselves into layups or open jumpers, the Nets' offense routinely stutters through innumerable dry spells. These spells can be lengthened and further dehydrated by taking certain defensive measures:
However the Xs and Os are deployed, the linchpin of both the Spurs' offense and defense is Duncan, whose brilliance has even been foretold by the Bard:
"Besides, this Duncan ... hath been so clear in his great office, that his virtues/Will plead like angels ..."
So who will emerge victorious?
Only seers and fools publicly predict the outcome of sporting events. I know I'm not the former, and I hope I'm not the latter. I can only expect a highly competitive series. And I can only hope for a triple-overtime in the seventh game.
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."