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Why the Spurs won
by Dennis Hans / June 24, 2005

The San Antonio Spurs are 2005 NBA champions in equal parts because of their fine play and some foolish decisions by the two Detroit Pistons with a University of North Carolina connection: coach Larry Brown and power forward Rasheed Wallace.

Let’s look first at the positives:

- Gregg Popovich pushed all the right buttons. His best move was to sit Beno Udrih starting with Game 5 and use Manu Ginobili as the backup point guard. Udrih has had a good rookie season and done well at times in the playoffs, but Lindsey Hunter was going to win the series by his lonesome just by wreaking havoc during the brief stretches he was hounding Udrih. There’s no substitute for quickness, and Popovich somewhat neutralized Hunter’s by sitting Udrih. Switching Bruce Bowen onto Chauncey “Mr. Big Shot” Billups in crunch time of Game 5 also paid off big.

- Manu Ginobili has emerged as a standout at both ends of the court who is at his best when the game is on the line. He was brilliant in Games 1 and 2 as the Spurs jumped out to a 2-0 lead, though the Pistons were able to contain him somewhat in Games 3, 4 and 5 in Detroit. Ginobili needs to develop his limited mid-range game – in particular a pull-up jumper off the dribble – to become a superstar. Three-point shooters can be guarded, and good defenses can clog the middle to some degree against gifted penetrators. When they do the latter, Manu needs a mid-range answer. Better late than never, he did look for a few mid-range shots in Game 7.

- Tony Parker gave nearly as good as he got in his matchup with Billups, the Piston’s strong, savvy, clutch and sweet-stroking leader. This was a big step forward for Parker, who a year ago was a non-factor in four consecutive playoff losses to the Lakers.

- Bruce Bowen played solid at both ends of the court. He has emerged from this postseason looking a whole lot better than his critics. I’ve seen nothing that would merit calling him a “dirty” player. Also, one of his critics, Ray Allen, has lost all credibility by his failure to condemn the vicious cheap shots his teammates directed at Ginobili. In the Finals, Richard Hamilton did his share of whining, but replays showed that, if anything, he did more grabbing, bumping and yapping than Bowen.

Overall, Duncan was a bit of a disappointment this series offensively, playing as if someone had stolen his mojo, not to mention his free-throw stroke. It’s not easy to score against the Wallaces, but Duncan made their job easier with his predictability. It may be time to jazz up his low-post repertoire. Duncan did, however, deliver on defense and the boards. Fortunately for Duncan, Robert Horry had enough mojo and moxie for the both of them. He couldn’t have been the Game 5 hero without the Pistons’ help, but when that help was forthcoming, “Big Shot Bob” knew just what to do.

Now for the Pistons and their two Tar Heel goats.

Popovich’s smart tactical adjustments in Game 5 wouldn’t have mattered if the Pistons hadn’t given Robert Horry all kinds of space for several trey attempts in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Rasheed Wallace, who otherwise had an outstanding series on defense, admitted he made a “boneheaded” play in double-teaming Ginobili in the last 10 seconds, which led to Horry’s unmolested game-winning bomb. But he made two similar mistakes late in regulation of the same game. Instead of crowding Horry when he had the ball beyond the arc, Rasheed gave him the space to line up his shot, get his feet set and fire away. Both went in. Granted, Rasheed isn’t accustomed to guarding spot-up trey shooters, but that’s no excuse.

With the benefit of hindsight, Brown probably should have kept Rasheed on Duncan and switched Ben Wallace – who is quicker than Rasheed and rarely makes a mental mistake – onto Horry. Horry can’t shoot without
space, and he was repeatedly given that space.

At the offensive end, Rasheed is an underdeveloped underachiever. Through the first six games, the Pistons’ low-post “presence” had attempted four measly free throws and was averaging 11.2 points on 44 percent shooting. Kevin McHale is the gold standard of low-post excellence for tall, thin dudes. He was active, assertive and unpredictable, with an array of moves and shots moving toward the basket. Sheed is limited and predictable. He’s the definition of a “settler” – a guy who “settles” for a so-so attempt when a skilled, versatile and assertive player would get a much better attempt – higher percentage, and a better chance of getting to the line in the event of a miss (or for a three-point play on a make). Rasheed’s underdevelopment reflects poorly on him and his coach. Brown seems to be a more effective teacher with guards than power players. Hamilton and Billups have become smarter, more complete players under Brown’s guidance; Rasheed on offense has gone backwards.

To give Brown his due, early in the Finals he proved why he’s regarded as one of the best coaches in the business at making between-game adjustments. He devised the strategy that put the clamps on Ginobili; he sprung a number of presses and traps that discombobulated the Spurs; and he kept Duncan off stride and out of his comfort zone by switching Ben Wallace and Rasheed on and off Duncan. But Brown also showed why he’s his own worst enemy.

As he did against the Miami Heat, Brown hurt the Pistons with his foul-trouble phobia, which frequently leads him to bench starters once they’ve gotten a second first-half foul. This is a profoundly stupid strategy by a generally brilliant coach. Brown immediately put the Pistons in a hole in Game 1, sitting Tayshaun Prince – who could not foul out of a game if his life depended on it – for the entire second quarter. Prince is a well-rounded, very good player whose natural style of play produces one of the lowest fouling rates in the league. Entering Game 6, Prince was averaging 2.0 fouls in 40.8 minutes in the playoffs. He finished this particular game with the two fouls he picked up early. In Game 2, Brown limited Prince to 12 first-half minutes again – and again with just two fouls.

Rasheed also lost valuable minutes throughout the Finals, and by not getting the opportunity to play with two fouls during the regular season, he has yet to master the art of playing effectively with fouls or the importance of not committing foolish ones – the type that Duncan and Ben Wallace never commit. Rasheed is not a rookie – he’s an outstanding, 30-year-old veteran. Fouls are inevitable when you defend in the paint, but it’s dumb to add to your burden through poor judgment.

Rasheed messed up in Game 6, where two early fouls and Brown’s rule limited him to 12 first-half minutes (one foul was a blatant, needless push of Brent Barry on an inbounds play). Then he committed two foolish fouls early in the third quarter, and a quick fifth on a needless push early in the fourth. Thus, in what to that point was the most important game of the season – coming on the heels of his boneheaded Game 5 – Rasheed’s lack of mental discipline resulted him in playing just 24 minutes.

It happened again in Game 7, as four fouls limited him to just 15 minutes through three quarters. Again, his poor judgment was on display. He’s too valuable a player to limit himself in this way and put his team in a bind. It represents a combined failure of Brown and Rasheed, and it’s the type of thing that spells the difference between a championship and a Finals loss.

As for Brown’s rule, many times this postseason we’ve seen stars stay on the court with two first-half fouls and play well. (Dwyane Wade, Duncan, Ginobili and Amare Stoudemire did so. Steve Nash picked up two fouls in the first few minutes of Game 5 vs. the Spurs. Mike D’Antoni left him in and he scored 21 first-half points.) Brown rarely gives his players a chance to do so. That puts the Pistons at a great disadvantage. It’s one they’ll often overcome in the regular season, when the competition isn’t consistently stiff. But when you’re battling for the conference crown or an NBA title, you cannot afford to chain good players to the bench because they might get in foul trouble. The wise course is to give your key players every opportunity to play the full number of minutes you’d like them to play.

That said, the Spurs are worthy champions. But they received big assists from the Pistons’ Tar Heel connection.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News, Slate and The Black World Today. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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