Free Darko On San Antonio-New Orleans

We're looking at every NBA Playoff series through the eyes of both Free Darko. Here's Free Darko's look at the Cleveland Cavaliers-Washington Wizards series. Your author is Bethlehem Shoals.

Somehow, the Hornets/Mavericks series told us everything about Dallas, and nothing of NOLA's team. It hammered home the Mavs' reputation for fecklessness, prompted a clubhouse implosion and pushed Avery Johnson out the door.

Josh Howard's strange, strange week hung from the clouds like an omen, obscuring the series itself and drawing attention to the Mavs' more general malaise. That the team's most promising young player should so suddenly crumble on the court, embroil himself in a major controversy, and then set off Avery's climactic fit of fire and brimstone was, to say the least, a bummer. New Orleans won the series, Dallas burnt like Rome.

Herein lies one of basketball's most frustrating conventions: It's arbitrary, or maybe just utterly subjective, where one team's folly ends and the other's excellence begins.

Coming into round one, the Hornets' youth and inexperience were widely decried, ruled fit for the plucking by a team like the Mavs. But after this summary thrashing, no one has rushed to deem NOLA fit for duty, or once and for all revoked those old criteria for post-season advancement (Atlanta being such an insane case that they prove absolutely nothing). The convincing 4-1 victory by the Hornets didn't make them legit, it just made Dallas suckier.

Thanks heavens we've arrived at the series of no excuses.

There are many reasons to hate the Spurs, and anyone devoted to this negative cause has seen fit to adjust his over time. Lately, I've come to see their reliance on big shots and random veterans delivering as basketball's answer to faith healing. But the fact remains that no team offers as definitive a foil as San Antonio. In part, it's because they're capable of playing any and every style, either mirroring the opponent or walloping them with their opposite.

It's this blank, implacable dominance that makes them the team every contender should want to go through. Beat San Antonio, and no questions remain. Put aside for a spell all the "heart of champion" mumbo-jumbo, or the apt — if empty — assertion that "they just find a way to win every time." On the level of pure basketball, there's nothing the Spurs cant counter or match; they have little or no discernible weaknesses, at least not any that come back to haunt them ("absence of awesome" only counts inside my head; youth, just a number).

Free Darko On San Antonio-New Orleans

What they do offer, then, is the ultimate test of credibility, a surefire way to once and for all establish one's worth. While Dallas frittered away the 2006 Finals, they did get past San Antonio on their way. Thus, any rightful trashing of the Avery years must begin with 2006-07; if anything, that series against the Spurs remains his greatest accomplishment.

So as someone who has already branded Chris Paul messiah, MVP, Mr. New Abe Lincoln, and everything in between, I welcome this nightmare matchup. Let Tim Duncan and his stolid bunch rip Paul, West, and Chandler to shreds, thus reinforcing all old thinking and sending the Hornets scurrying for off-season answers. That's what they did to the Suns, and what brought about that team's ruin. The Spurs have the power to hand down judgment like no other squad around.

Then again, supposed the Hornets hang tough, or, god forbid, win. Suppose, as a friend of mine dared to dream earlier tonight, that Paul puts together a 40-20 game. Then the Hornets will be vindicated, conventional thinking will take a beating, and most importantly, there will be no doubting that this team is for real — even if they subsequently fall to the Lakers or Celtics.

It just won't work to dismiss or qualify San Antonio's performance the way we're accustomed to doing when it suits our assumptions; they've been too good, and too resourceful, for too long. That is why, for once in my life, I come here to praise the Spurs. They are like the Bulls of old, but just mortal enough to offer hope. They are the NBA's great litmus test, of no value in and of themselves but absolutely indispensable to the landscape of the league.

Free Darko On San Antonio-New Orleans