There it was again: The third quarter.
For the third time in three home games, the New Orleans Hornets blew the San Antonio Spurs out of the gym in the third stanza Tuesday night, turning a tense, exciting, close game into a 101-79 seal clubbing and a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference semifinals.
The Spurs took the defensive tack of letting the Hornets have David West and shutting down everything else. It worked to a point in the first half. It couldn't have been part of the plan for West to respond with a career night, torching the Spurs for 22 of his eventual 38 points by the break, but San Antonio still went in with a 47-44 lead.
It didn't take long in the third quarter for the Hornets to take control. New Orleans shot 41 percent in the first half, one tick better than San Antonio, but now the shots were falling. Seven of 11 went in, including three of four 3-pointers, during a decisive 21-10 run that took up most of the quarter.
During that same stretch the Spurs shot 3-for-15, 1-for-4 from beyond the arc. The Hornets looked a step quicker than the defending champs on defense, as they had in Games 1 and 2, and not in Games 3 and 4 in Texas. They crowded the paint, ran out to the shooters, forced turnovers and blocked shots, then nailed their own in transition.
The teams had thumb-wrestled to a virtual draw for 24 minutes before halftime, and then for nine minutes the Hornets delivered a beating.
West had 14 rebounds and five blocks to go with his 38 points. Chris Paul had 16 of his 22 points in the second half. Morris Peterson, who had the hot hand during the run, hit four 3-pointers.
So this homey series in this homey round goes back to San Antonio for Game 6, where the Spurs, being the home team, figure to once again have the huge advantage, to be able to avoid the kinds of runs the Hornets have managed in New Orleans third quarters, instead putting on one of their own.
Why? Take a wild guess. That's the only way to get an explanation. Home teams played .601 ball during the regular season. In the first round of the playoffs, their winning percentage was .659. This round, it's .944. And it's not something the Spurs or Hornets are doing or not doing at halftime. In San Antonio, the Spurs dominated the third quarter in both games, taking control of Game 3 and extending a 13-point halftime lead into a laugher in Game 4.
Whatever the cause of the visiting teams' mysterious third-quarter woes, it won't help the Hornets Thursday that West emerged from this game with a sore back, and Tyson Chandler, the main defender who has kept Tim Duncan in check, had a scary-looking injury late in the game, though it was announced as a bruised foot and declared no big deal by Chandler.
The only team that's managed to lose a home game in this round got bounced -- on the road, of course -- Tuesday when the Detroit Pistons eliminated the Orlando Magic with a 91-86 win to take the series 4-1. There was a time at midseason when I thought the Magic were really turning into something. And they were: A quick second-round loser.
Look out for the Pistons. The Celtics are looking like regular-season wonders, unable to find that extra playoff gear so far and seeming to lack the personnel, Kevin Garnett aside, who can supply it. And now the Pistons get to rest for at least a half a week while the Celts and the Cleveland Cavaliers play home-and-home beat on each other.