March 24, 2012

The New Orleans Hornets have played the San Antonio Spurs virtually even for large chunks of both of their two meetings this season. On Saturday evening in the Crescent City, the Hornets will try to break through for their first piece of tangible success against their Southwest Division counterparts in 2011-12. On Jan. 23 in New Orleans, the Hornets dropped a hard-fought contest to the Spurs, a game that wasnt decided until the final seconds. The Spurs needed a running 14-foot hook shot by Tim Duncan with 1.4 seconds remaining to pull out a 104-102 victory, one of many near-misses for the Hornets in early-season games. Carl Landry had a desperation three-point attempt from 28 feet at the buzzer, but his contested shot came up short.

Just 10 days later, the Hornets and Spurs met again in San Antonio, with the Spurs prevailing 93-81. However, New Orleans led 45-44 at halftime and trailed just 71-68 through three quarters, before San Antonio pulled away late on the strength of a 22-13 final period. The division foes will wrap up their four-game season series on April 6 in San Antonio.

The familiar Spurs tandem of Duncan and Tony Parker has done the most damage against the Hornets in the prior contests, as the clubs leading scorers both games. Duncan is averaging 23.5 points per game against New Orleans, while Parker is at 19.0. Landry was the Hornets top weapon in the two Spurs games, averaging 17.5 points and 6.0 rebounds. Jarrett Jack racked up 26 points, six rebounds and nine assists in the Jan. 23 affair, but sat out the Feb. 2 game due to injury. The Hornets are hoping to build on a Southwest Division victory over Dallas on March 2, the teams first in-division win of 2011-12 after a combined 0-7 start against the Spurs, Mavericks, Grizzlies and Rockets.

Intriguing matchup: Center, Chris Kaman vs. DeJuan Blair
Kaman only played a total of 14 minutes in two games against the Spurs, filling a bench role with a healthy Emeka Okafor starting at center. Since those early-season meetings, Kamans responsibility has expanded to that of frequent go-to guy on offense. The 7-footer had one stretch of 20-plus games in which he tallied 10 points or more. Blair started both games vs. NOLA but was limited to 41 total minutes.


One of the most successful teams among all North American professional sports franchises over the past two decades, the Spurs are once again an elite squad. With a 30-14 record through entering Friday, San Antonio is in second place in the Western Conference, behind only Oklahoma City. The Spurs have moved to near the top of the standings despite the extended absence of sparkplug shooting guard Manu Ginobili, who sat out 28 of the clubs first 44 games. San Antonio has been one of the most skilled teams in the NBA at finding little-known prospects and getting excellent production from them, a key to another stellar season. After the Spurs longtime trio of Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, the leading scorers include an undrafted player (Gary Neal), two second-round picks (DeJuan Blair and Danny Green) and a rookie (Kahwi Leonard). Putting it all together is Gregg Popovich, regarded by many as the leagues best head coach. Popovich was a mentor for Monty Williams and Dell Demps, both of whom spent time in the Spurs organization after retiring from playing.

What's new
A member of the Spurs 2003 NBA championship team, scoring-minded small forward Stephen Jackson returned to San Antonio on the day of the March 15 trade deadline. Jackson provides offensive punch from the wing and has improved steadily as a defender over the course of his career. As part of the trade with Golden State, San Antonio did lose a significant contributor, small forward Richard Jefferson. Other than Jackson, the Spurs do not have many brand-new faces, though several players have assumed expanded roles compared to previous years.

Spurs star
It wouldve been almost sacrilegious to call anyone other than Duncan the Spurs best player prior to the past few seasons. After all, Duncan was the MVP of the entire league in 2002 and 2003. Still, as the 35-year-old Duncan has gotten older, the title of go-to guy has been transferred to the 29-year-old Parker. During the Spurs first three championships in 1999, 2003 and 2005, Duncan was named NBA Finals MVP, but when they defeated Cleveland and LeBron James in the 2007 championship round, Parker received the prestigious honor. It may have been the first signal of a changing of the guard. Parker is now the Spurs leading scorer and go-to guy on offense, averaging over five points per game more than Duncan.

Spur on the rise
After a decorated career overseas, backup big man Tiago Splitter came to the NBA with considerable hype but was a bit of a disappointment as a rookie in 2010-11. Now in his second NBA season, Splitter has been one of the NBAs most improved players, averaging an efficient 9.2 points and 5.0 rebounds in just 20.0 minutes. Hes also shooting a team-best 61.1 percent from the field, due to his excellent finishing skills around the rim. Splitter burned the Hornets in two Spurs wins this season with averages of 14.0 points and 6.5 rebounds.

On the sideline
Popovich ranks fifth all-time in winning percentage by an NBA head coach, with over 800 victories but fewer than 400 defeats. Hes also third on the all-time list with 108 playoff victories, having led the Spurs to all four of the franchises championships, in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007. The 63-year-old is one of the few active NBA head coaches who never played in the league, but has won more games than any of them other than Denvers George Karl and Minnesotas Rick Adelman.

Did you know?
San Antonio has finished in first or second place every year since the Southwest Division was created in 2004-05. The Spurs are gunning for their second straight division crown. They were runners-up in 2007-08 behind New Orleans, the Hornets only division championship.

Players the Spurs want shooting free throws in a close game... If the Spurs need a three-pointer, three of their best options are...
Name Career FT percentage (through March 20)
Spurs missed his daring drives to the basket.
Has only taken 19 attempts in first 43 games.
Shot over 80 percent as a rookie in 2010-11.
Name Career three-point percentage (through March 20)
Has fired 176 treys this season but only 63 two-pointers.
Made at least one trey in every game from Feb. 18-March 17.
Only appeared in 28 games over first two NBA seasons.

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