May 29, 2007
That's the pet phrase that Gregg Popovich uses from time to time during the season, usually when imploring his San Antonio Spurs to stay focused and alert. Popovich subscribes to the theory that unless you are a little bit afraid of your opponent, you're not going to have the necessary edge to win a basketball game, especially on the road at the highest level.
I think it's safe to say the Spurs didn't have appropriate fear for Game 3 in Salt Lake City when the Utah Jazz blew them out by 26 points. Popovich even went so far as to say his team "gave in" during the second half when Utah made its push.
Game 4 was a different story. San Antonio was on edge from the start, respecting the Jazz and understanding how difficult winning at EnergySolutions Arena would be. That's why the Spurs brought their best game, and that's why they were able to beat Utah 91-79 on Monday and go home with a 3-1 series lead.
San Antonio outplayed, outfought and outhustled the Jazz. The Spurs maintained their composure through every Utah run. They took Carlos Boozer out of the game in the second half, sagging in front of him from the perimeter and being physical with him down low. Deron Williams had another terrific game, but he didn't have much help from anyone else offensively. San Antonio did what it always does -- it locked down defensively and slowly squeezed the life out of its opponent.
What I'm seeing from the Spurs right now is a continuation of years of playing "the system." This is what they do: They compete, they defend and they make life miserable for you. They play off Tim Duncan, and they rely on timely outside shooting to support him. And in the second half, they change their game a bit, going through Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker on the perimeter. On Monday, Ginobili was the key guy in the fourth quarter, getting into the lane, drawing fouls and finding easy points.
The X-factor in this series, though, is someone who doesn't have years of service in "the system." Fabricio Oberto seems to get offensive rebounds and tip-outs every time San Antonio needs an extra possession. He gets a few buckets every game just by being in the right place at the right time, and he takes charges and draws fouls just by being a pest. He's been a major thorn in the Jazz's side.
I know all of you San Antonio haters will be all over me about this blog, calling me a Spurs homer. But facts are facts: No team in the NBA has been able to accomplish what San Antonio has done over the past eight years. The Spurs are the most consistent team in the NBA, the most balanced and maybe the toughest. And as long as they continue to play with Popovich's prescribed "appropriate fear," they should find themselves in the NBA finals in a few days.