NEW ORLEANS - A title defense endures for the playoff-savvy San Antonio Spurs.
Manu Ginobili scored 26 points, hitting four free throws in the final minute, sending the Spurs to the Western Conference finals with a 91-82 victory over the New Orleans Hornets last night in Game 7 of their second-round series.
Tony Parker added 17 points, including a crucial jumper in the final minute, as the Spurs held off a late rally to become the first team in this series to win on the road.
With a nucleus of Chris Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler, the Hornets appear destined for greater things, but now is not their time.
It's the Spurs and their trio of Tim Duncan, Ginobili and Parker who will be traveling to Los Angeles to face the Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals tomorrow night.
West led the Hornets with 20 points, while Paul and Jannero Pargo each added 18. Chandler had 13 points and 15 rebounds for the Hornets, who cut a deficit as large as 17 down to three inside the final two minutes.
Duncan had 16 points and 14 rebounds for the Spurs, seeking to win back-to-back titles for the first time.
The win also gave Spurs coach Gregg Popovich 100 playoff victories, moving him into a tie with Larry Brown for third on the career list.
The Hornets had dominated the third quarters of their three previous home games in this series. This time, the Spurs had an answer. It was their calling card: stingy defense.
The Hornets, down by nine to open the period, could not manage consecutive baskets throughout the quarter, never getting closer than seven.
New Orleans went nearly three minutes without a basket before Paul hit two free throws to close the gap to 58-50.
Michael Finley then responded with a three-pointer and Parker added a jumper, putting San Antonio up by 63-50.
New Orleans finally began to look overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment, even missing open shots. Peja Stojakovic shot an airball on an open three-point attempt. West missed an open 12-footer. The Hornets shot 5 of 17 for the quarter.
Buoyed by a home crowd that stood throughout the fourth quarter, the Hornets fought back to make a game of it, largely behind Pargo, who had done little in this series. He scored seven straight on four free throws sandwiched around a three-pointer, pulling the Hornets to 81-77 with 3 minutes, 10 seconds to go.