The big question among NBA-playoff watchers over the last 48 hours has been: Are the Spurs finally over-the-hill?
I'm reluctant to answer in the affirmative because I was convinced that age had caught up with this team two years ago when they struggled to keep up with a younger, quicker Dallas Mavericks team in the Western Conference semifinals. And I wouldn't be surprised to see the Spurs rebound at home this week after two demoralizing, blowout losses to the New Orleans Hornets.
But there are troubling echoes in this series of the Spurs' 2004 elimination at the hands of the Fab Four Lakers (the one-year experiment featuring Shaq, Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton, and Karl Malone). That year, after winning the first two games of the series, the Spurs were muzzled by an LA defense that dared them to score from the perimeter. In much the same way the Hornets have frustrated Tim Duncan with persistent double-teams, the 2004 Lakers used the wily Karl Malone to keep Duncan off-balance. The Spurs' crucial Game 4 and Game 6 losses in that series were eerily like the first two games of the Hornets' series: The Spurs played well for a half, then collapsed in an ugly second -half parade of three-point bricks and wilting transition defense. As Duncan faded in that series, no one could pick up the slack. Certainly, the Tony Parker of 2008 is a more formidable player than he was four years ago, but he's still an inconsistent jump shooter, and the Hornets' speed on the defensive end has kept him from getting to the paint. Even if the Spurs shoot better in San Antonio, the dynamics of this series are troubling for Duncan and Co.