SAN ANTONIO – Byron Scott will tell his New Orleans Hornets that they have no reason to panic. That they're going home where they've lost just once in the past 10 weeks. That they've already routed these San Antonio Spurs four times this season. That all the Spurs did was what they're supposed to do: win on their own floor.
Scott will be right about all of that. But he said something else Sunday night that also rung true.
"I think," Scott said, "we went back to being a little bit inexperienced."
It's hard to figure out just how far back Scott was referring. The Hornets have matured faster than anyone expected this season, and they've made believers out of more than a few doubters along the way.
But after Sunday's 100-80 loss? For the first time in the playoffs, don't these young Hornets have some reason to be concerned?
The Los Angeles Lakers likely were mulling over the same question about themselves on their Sunday flight home. Like the Hornets they've been front-running through the playoffs. Like the Hornets they now find themselves knotted in a 2-2 series, feeling some pressure. Lose Game 5 and suddenly you're back on the road facing elimination.
The Lakers can lean on Kobe Bryant, who's been through a few of these battles. The Hornets have Bryant's MVP runner-up, Chris Paul, and that counts for something, too, considering the Spurs haven't stopped him yet. But Paul also has shown his youth on a few occasions in this series, no more so than in Game 3.
Then, exasperated with Bruce Bowen hounding him, Paul turned to the Spurs' designated pest and offered this protest: "I'm going to tell Stu Jackson on you."
The look on Bowen's face seemed to say it all. You're going to … tell on me?
Tattling, as Paul probably quickly learned, doesn't count for much in the playoffs. David West also has had his moments. He kicked the scorer's table in anger in Game 3. Down 20 in Sunday's third quarter, he flung out his left arm to deck Bowen for a foul.
Some of this is normal frustration that comes with losing. Bowen also has been known to jab his foot into a table – or a player. Still, Scott felt the need to stencil these instructions on the dry-erase board in the Hornets' locker room Sunday: "Maintain Poise."
The Hornets didn't seem to suffer from a lack of poise Sunday as much as a lack of effectiveness. A little more than three minutes into the second half, they were down 20. By the start of the fourth quarter, Scott was emptying his bench.
Said West: "I don't think we even tried tonight."
The Spurs made similar comments about themselves after their two lopsided losses in New Orleans. But the changes in this series run deeper than who plays the hardest, and on Sunday the Spurs gave the Hornets a few things to think about.
Thing No. 1: Tim Duncan. He now looks healthy. In Game 1, Duncan totaled five points and three rebounds then retired to his hotel with a 103 degree fever. Given a week to recover – and a week for the Spurs coaches to figure out how to attack New Orleans' double teams – Duncan went for 22 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks. He changed the game on both ends of the floor, altering the Hornets' shots and attacking the rim off give-and-go opportunities with the Spurs' guards.
In the series' first couple games "his quickness wasn't there, his extension on his jump hooks wasn't there," Robert Horry said. "A lot of little things like that."
Tony Parker, instructed by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to be a point pig, continued to counter Paul while Bowen continued to chew up Peja Stojakovic. The same Stojakovic who averaged 23.5 points in the first two games has averaged seven in the past two.
The Hornets coaches also have griped privately and publicly about their bench, which has been a season-long theme. Scott left Tyson Chandler on the floor with four fouls early in the third quarter and Manu Ginobili needed all of 38 seconds to draw No. 5 out of the Hornets center. Still, it was hard to fault Scott: Who was he going to replace him with?
The Spurs are both deep and battle-tested. They've downplayed the impact of the Hornets' playoff inexperience, but they also know their own experience has helped them.
"For us, there's no situation in a game that we haven't faced," Michael Finley said. "So when coach comes into the huddle we can say we've been here before. We know what we need to do."
No one in NBA history has seen more of these battles than Horry. He played in his 237th postseason game Sunday, matching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time record. The moment was special, even if the reason for Horry's appearance wasn't: He checked in for the final two minutes of the first half to intentionally foul Chandler.
Still, Horry also found time during those 105 seconds to throw in a shot and keep another possession alive with an offensive rebound. The Hornets, meanwhile, tried to use Melvin Ely to spell Chandler for the final 14.1 seconds of the same half. Ely promptly gave up a three-point play to Duncan.
The Spurs know Ely well. Last season, they acquired him before the trade deadline from Charlotte for Eric Williams. At the time, Popovich summed up the deal by saying: "We traded an injured-list player for an injured-list player."
That's not to say the Spurs are no longer worried by these Hornets. They are. Paul is a playoff novice, but he and his teammates have grown up fast. And Popovich himself likes to joke that all it takes is one loss for a team to go from "wise and experienced" to "old and unathletic." The Spurs have looked both in this series.
Young teams also tend to feed off their fans more, and two of the remaining three games, if needed, will be played in New Orleans. There's a reason why they call it "home-court advantage:" In the second round of these playoffs, the home team has won every game but one.
So Super Hugo and his Ring of Fire will be waiting Tuesday. For many of the Hornets it will be the biggest game of their NBA careers.
"I'm interested," Horry said, "in seeing how they react."
The Spurs? They'll tell themselves they've been here before.
- Byron Scott