The moment for the San Antonio Spurs came not in the third quarter, when most of them came in the first six games of this series, but in the second.
The defending champs had built an 11-point lead over the New Orleans Hornets on the road in Game 7, and while the usually raucous crowd was subdued and the home team looked sluggish, there was still plenty of time left. The third quarter: That had been the undoing all along for whoever had been the visitor.
The Hornets went on a run, ahead of schedule. Down 36-25 at about the midway point of the second period, Chris Paul knifed through the lane on a pick and roll and made an off-balance layup. Then Morris Peterson body-checked Robert Horry -- who has taken on the nickname Cheap Shot Bob in the year since his own cross-check on Steve Nash -- into the San Antonio bench as they chased a Tony Parker miss. No whistle, Hornets ball.
This might have been the moment if the Hornets had won this game and advanced. The younger, upstart team with this year's model at point guard literally knocking the aging champions out, San Antonio folding up and crawling away after the young guns imposed upon them physically, sending their oldest, clutchest player sprawling.
The teams traded misses after that, but then New Orleans exploded. Peja Stojakovic took a feed from Paul and nailed a three. After a near-airball by Ime Udoka, Peterson drilled one from the exact same spot on the floor.
Now the crowd was alive, chanting "De-fense!" as Horry missed a 3-pointer. Paul drove into the lane, put Udoka on his hip, hit a little floater and was fouled, though he missed the free throw, his third miss in the sequence. Up just 36-35 now, San Antonio missed a jumper, got the rebound, then turned it over.
Stojakovic poured in a 20-footer from the right baseline and New Orleans had the lead. The Hornets were taking control, starting to shovel dirt on the Spurs dynasty. A 12-0 run and the beginning of the end. It was happening a quarter early, but it was happening.
Except it wasn't happening. Manu Ginobili hit a three to regain the lead. Then a rebound, coast-to-coast drive and layup by Parker. Tim Duncan dropped in a turnaround jumper. Ginobili made two more threes. The Hornets managed one free throw.
By the time Hornets coach Byron Scott called timeout with 57 seconds left in the half, the Spurs were up by 11 again. You don't bury the Spurs just by throwing a little dirt on them.
There was one more opening for, if you will, a third-quarter moment. San Antonio led 58-48 about the midway point of that quarter when Bruce Bowen missed wide-open 3-pointers on consecutive possessions. Bowen's usually pretty reliable from that spot on the wing -- it's his entire offensive arsenal -- but neither shot went. Hitting both around a New Orleans miss would have put the Spurs up by 16. A few moments later, with 4:41 to go in the quarter, Duncan committed his fourth foul and went to the bench.
And while he was there, the Spurs lead grew from 10 points to 15. So much for the third quarter.
The Hornets had one last chance late in the fourth. A 7-0 run brought them to within four, though two Parker free throws made it 83-77. Then came a remarkable sequence in which the Hornets retained possession on a jump ball and, via liberal use of the desperation tap-back, grabbed four offensive rebounds before Jannero Pargo finally buried a 3-pointer for 83-80.
But again the Spurs wouldn't go down. Pargo missed a wide-open game-tying 3-pointer, Parker bounced up for an 18-footer that extended the lead to five, Paul missed a scoop shot on a drive down the lane, and the Spurs made their free throws in the end game.
San Antonio's 91-82 win, the only road win of the series and only the third in 25 games in the now-complete second round, earned them a spot in the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers starting Wednesday night. The Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics meet in the Eastern Conference finals starting Tuesday night in Boston.
The Hornets are on the rise, with a great young point guard and one of the game's best coaches. But, while it looked like it after two games, the Spurs aren't done yet. Prognostications to the contrary should always be made with great caution, even when the Spurs have fallen behind two games to none. Even when it looks like one of those third-quarter moments is looming.