San Antonio over Detroit in seven.
San Antonio. Detroit. I’ve lost most of you already, haven’t I? Welcome to the Flyover Finals. Do me a favor, would you? Don’t miss them. Game 1 is Thursday night in San Antonio. The Finals are on ABC, so you’ll only be able to see snippets between the crazy camera angles and the crowd shots, but do your best.
The Spurs vs. the Pistons is only the fourth time in NBA history that neither team in the Finals plays in a coastal state. All of the other three, Chicago Bulls vs. Phoenix Suns in 1993 and vs. Utah Jazz in ’97 and ’98 — included Michael Jordan.
Only fools dismiss championship matchups that don’t involve teams from the Northeast, Chicago or Los Angeles. They’re the people who missed out on a great World Series in 2002 — Anaheim doesn’t count as L.A. in this discussion — and a great Stanley Cup Finals in 2004.
To be fair, they also missed the unwatchable 2003 NBA Finals — New Jersey doesn’t count as the Northeast in this discussion. There are no guarantees.
But it would be a mistake to give this series a pass even though it involves the same Spurs who beat the Nets in that brickfest two years ago. That’s because they’re not the same Spurs, and the Pistons are not the Nets.
If you’re a casual fan you’re probably hearing the talk about the Pistons and Spurs being the two best defensive teams in the league and you’re thinking, “Oh, no, here we go again. Hello, 68-63.”
Then you’re looking down the rosters and seeing only one real marquee name, Tim Duncan, and he’s the unflashiest superstar since Willis Reed. And really he makes Reed look like Dr. J.
Don’t be fooled. TiVo “The O.C.” Watch this series.
The scores will be low, but there’s a difference between low scores because of good defenses and hideous offenses — Spurs-Nets in ’03 — and low scores because of good defenses stopping good offenses. The Pistons and Spurs can both score. San Antonio ran with the high-flying Suns and beat them in five games. The Pistons have plenty of weapons in transition and the half-court.
And while there may not be any Michael Jordans around, there is Duncan, who isn’t exciting and flashy, he’s just one of the best players ever. And if you can find a player more exciting and flashy than the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili, I’d like to hear about him. Tony Parker is a slasher who has developed into the point guard he was hyped as being two years ago.
For the Pistons, shooting guard Rip Hamilton is a perpetual motion machine, center Ben Wallace is simply the game’s premier badass, blocking shots, ripping down rebounds and looking cool doing it, and power forward Rasheed Wallace is an explosive personality who, when he gets his mind right, has superstar skills.
Tayshaun Prince’s arms aren’t too short to box with God, and they’re certainly long enough to defend against anyone. He can shoot and run the floor too.
I’m a fan of Suns-style, offensive basketball. I like the way they dribble up and down the court. But great defenses and at-least-competent offenses make for exciting ball too, just a different kind.
The goal of both teams will be to prevent easy baskets, fast-break points. That means they’ll run when they’re able — both teams can — but overall they’ll try to slow the pace. That creates a game where every possession matters.
You can call it grinding or intense, but as long as the game stays close — and these teams are so evenly matched the games figure to stay close — it’s nail-biting stuff. You might also call it sludgy, but I’d only use that term if the offenses are incompetent. These two aren’t.
The Pistons are the defending champs and they certainly know how to win. They seem to get tougher as situations become more difficult, as they showed by rallying from 3-2 to beat the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, winning a nip-and-tuck Game 7 on the road.
But I think the Spurs are the best team in the league. Champions two years ago, they can match Detroit’s experience and talent, and they have a deeper, more effective bench, more ways to score and home-court advantage.
The Pistons backcourt of Hamilton and Chauncey Billups is often called the best in the league, but if they’re better than Ginobili and Parker, it isn’t by much. The Spurs also use their best defender, Bruce Bowen, officially a small forward, to stop the other team’s biggest non-low-post scoring threat. He figures to spend some time guarding Hamilton.
Brent Barry, a great offseason pickup who comes off the bench, gives the Spurs the long-range shooting threat they lacked last year, making Ginobili’s and Parker’s drives and Duncan’s post-play more effective. The Pistons only use defensive specialist Lindsey Hunter off the bench in the backcourt.
Overall the Pistons, with the two Wallaces, Prince and reserve Antonio McDyess, are a little better up front, but nobody’s as good as Duncan, and he makes up the difference. The Pistons will throw waves of defenders and defensive looks at him in an effort to slow him down or, failing that, put him on the line.
Nazr Mohammed, whom the Spurs stole in a midseason trade with the Knicks, has been solid in the middle, and Robert Horry contributes a lot with his scoring and rebounding in a reserve role, not least because effective minutes off the bench means rest for the starters.
The Pistons are coming off a meat-grinder of a series with Miami while the Spurs have been resting for a week. This series figures to be brutal as well.
Duncan and Parker are averaging 36 minutes a game in the playoffs for the Spurs, Ginobili 32 and no one else more than 30. Four Pistons are averaging more than 36 minutes a game, and two of them, Hamilton (43.6) and Prince (41.6), are over 40. Especially as the series goes on, the Pistons’ relative lack of effective depth could take its toll in fourth quarters.
Much has been made of the coaching matchup, Larry Brown of the Pistons and Gregg Popovich of the Spurs. Brown gave Popovich his first NBA coaching job, Pop was an assistant for Brown on last year’s Olympic team and the two are close friends. They’re both great coaches who get the most out of their players. I’ll personally take Popovich’s no-nonsense approach over Brown’s tiresome neuroses, but really it’s a wash.
The Spurs also benefit from home-court advantage. For reasons I’ve never been able to fathom, the NBA switches the format in the Finals, with the middle three games all being played on one floor, the team with the extra home game hosting Games 1, 2, 6 and 7. In the earlier rounds, it goes 2-2-1-1-1.
That makes it awfully tough on the team that opens on the road. They must get a split in the first two games because it’s almost impossible to win those middle three in a row. In fact, until the Pistons did it last year against a Lakers team that had already keeled over and died, no team had done it since the format change in 1985.
I think the 2-3-2 format also discourages seven-game series. Maybe it’s a historical accident or there are other factors, but in the 20 years since the Finals switched to this format in 1985, there have been two that have gone to seven games. In the 20 years before that, there were six.
The Finals haven’t gone to seven games since 1994. Everyone seems to think this one’s going seven. I do too. And I think the Spurs will win it. But boy, it’s going to be tough. Don’t miss it.
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