SAN ANTONIO – The bus bringing the New Orleans Hornets out of Game 6, out of angst and anger, grumbled near the back of the AT&T Center. Before climbing the steps, Byron Scott tugged out his iPod’s ear piece and considered the possibility that Robert Horry had turned into Cheap Shot Bob again.
“I’m not real OK with it,” Scott told Yahoo! Sports. “But if I didn’t know Robert on a personal level, I’d say that was a dirty shot. Yeah, if I didn’t know him the way I know him, I’d say it was a cheap shot.”
Yes, he always liked Horry, but no one could convince Scott that West wasn’t a victim of a desperate shot by a desperate champion. The Hornets had been destroyed 99-80 in Game 6 on Thursday night, and still Scott and his players seethed over the blindsided screen Horry had leveled on West and his bad back.
“I also think he understood what he was doing,” Scott said.
Which was this: He had a chance to hit West, hit him hard and what were the odds that Horry was going to pass on it? Right, right. These are the Spurs, and they’re going to fight you to the ends of earth to take them out of the tournament. They’re the champs and they dictate terms of engagement.
So yes, Horry had a clear shot at the Hornet most responsible for pushing San Antonio to the brink in Game 5, and damn straight that Horry leaned into that screen and made sure the world watched West stagger to the locker room.
As West leaped to deflect a pass floating over him in the fourth quarter, his momentum thrust him backward toward Horry. Horry stiffened his arms and leaned into the small of West’s back. It warranted no flagrant, no ejection. He was instantaneous, a legitimate basketball play on some level, but it was cunning and cold-hearted, too.
“It was almost like when you see that blindside of a quarterback,” West said. “He just caught me really clean, and my guard was down, because I didn’t know anybody was behind me.”
West crumpled to the court, and lay on his stomach with his left arm reaching for his back. He has struggled with stiffness in the back for several days and had favored it Thursday night. There was a price to pay for his 38 points in Game 5. With it tightening again these past 48 hours, uneasy Hornets officials watching West struggle to simply unfurl his 6-foot-9 body into his bus seat for the ride from the team hotel. Everyone suspected this could be a difficult night for him.
As with the Hornets, West wasn’t himself. He missed 10 of 14 shots. Those 17-footers that he can make in his sleep were clanking on the rim. He had no lift, no explosion, no chance but to use the four days until Game 7 to get his back right again.
As for ill intentions of the play, when asked if it was intentional, Tyson Chandler said, “I wouldn’t doubt it.”
When West lay on the floor, the Hornets couldn’t believe what came next in the arena. At first, they doubted what they were hearing. As the trainer and coaches gathered around West, the Hornets’ Hilton Armstrong nudged Chris Paul and told him to listen closely.
They weren’t chanting … were they?
“Horry … Horry … Horry … ”
Yes, they were.
Eighteen thousand seven hundred and ninety-seven could also see the bad intentions, too.
No one was angrier than Paul, who asked a Hornets official in the locker room: Did you hear that? As Paul walked down the corridors late Thursday, the crowd’s voice promised to stay on his mind. “When David got hurt, you’re going to chant for Robert Horry like he did a good thing?”
Just a year ago, Horry’s hip-check on Steve Nash triggered a reaction that cost the Phoenix Suns’ Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw suspensions. “That was the meanest thing I’ve ever seen,” a sarcastic Gregg Popovich said recently. Oh, how the Spurs have to come to revel in the image that between Horry and Bruce Bowen, they’ve somehow turned themselves into basketball’s silver and black.
Perhaps Horry’s done making clutch shots in the playoffs, but the seven-time champion forever finds ways to make himself relevant. Here’s his genius: He picked his spot brilliantly. This act didn’t border on a flagrant foul. There will be no fine, no suspension. Yet your eyes dictated a different truth, something that Scott said: Horry knew what he was doing. He knew whom he was hitting and where he was hitting him.
“I’ll take a look at it, but right now, I’ll just say he caught me with a good shot,” West said.
If Horry was trying to knock you out of Monday night, did it work?
“No … no,” West assured. “It wasn’t that good of a shot.”
Somehow, you just know the Spurs will make one final desperate run to hold off the inevitable: That eventually these young Hornets are going to overtake them in the Western Conference. Maybe this year, maybe next, but it’s coming and these Spurs understand they can’t hold back Paul and West and Chandler forever.
That’s not what they need to do now. Just one more game, one more night in New Orleans.
“They’ve got a lot of pride,” West said. “They’ve been doing this for a long, long time. But they know that we’re not going to back down .We’re going to attack them. The fact is they’ve won in the past, been through a lot of situations. We just have to do what we can to make them uncomfortable. We know how they’re going to come out. They’re going to bring it all.”
Before this series, Scott promised his players that beating the Spurs will be the hardest thing they’ve ever done in basketball. He declared them a dynasty that belongs with the Lakers and Celtics of the 1980s and the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s.
“They’re one of the greatest teams ever,” Scott said. “They’re our model. That’s who we want to be.”
Scott backed West, his star, but deep down he loves the way these Spurs are testing his Hornets. He still talks with such reverence about the ’80s in the NBA, like it was a faraway golden time that is so sadly lost in the modern league. Just last week, he was talking in his New Orleans office about how much tougher, how much nastier, playoff basketball was in those Lakers-Celtics Finals days
“Remember the McHale clothesline on Rambis,” he sniffed. “That was just two free throws.”
All that is so much of the reason why the Spurs have done this young New Orleans franchise the biggest favor of all: Taught them what it takes to contend, to compete for a championship, to dare topple a dynasty. As much as Scott was furious over that shot to West’s aching back, the Hornets coach understood there was nothing that he could ever tell him, tell his team, that substituted the pain that comes with this process.
Finally, the buses were ready to roll out of Game 6 on Thursday night, out of San Antonio, and Byron Scott started to climb the steps to his front seat. Finally, he said, “Now it’s a Game 7 and they’re going to test us even more so. This is the biggest thing that this team ever tried to do, maybe ever even imagined.”
As much as anything, the Spurs are holding onto dear life now. An old man with seven rings delivered David West to the deck on Thursday night, and this happened to be the start of Game 7 here: All hell breaking loose, all the way to a champ’s desperate last stand.