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 visiting 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 the series to win on the road.

The Hornets, who once trailed by 17 points, got as close as three with 1 1/2 minutes left.

"We really believed we had a chance to win on the road here," said Spurs forward Tim Duncan, who had 16 points and 14 rebounds. "It's just a lot of confidence. A lot of games under our belt."

With a nucleus of Chris Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler, the Hornets appear destined for greater things, but now is not their time.

"One thing I want them to remember when they start working out next season is how they feel right now," said Hornets coach Byron Scott, adding he was proud of his team, which did not make the playoffs last season, for pushing the Spurs as far as it did.

"You have to go through some things before you can really understand how good it's going to feel when you get to that next level. You don't go from not making playoffs to winning a championship. It just doesn't work that way . . . We're headed in right direction."

Now the Spurs and their championship ring-laden trio of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker will be traveling to Los Angeles to face the Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals tomorrow night.

The defending champion Spurs have won four titles in 9 years, but never back-to-back.

The win gave Spurs coach Gregg Popovich 100 playoff victories, moving him into a tie with Larry Brown for third on the career list.


* Utah Jazz forward Paul Millsap will have surgery Thursday to repair his left thumb, which was injured during the Western Conference semifinals. General manager Kevin O'Connor says Millsap has a torn ligament. *