NEW ORLEANS - As Manu Ginobili dribbled out the final few seconds of the second-round series clincher, Tony Parker walked over and gave him a congratulatory pat on the head.
There would be no exuberant celebration for the San Antonio Spurs when the final horn sounded, just a few hugs for a job well done. This playoff-savvy group was exhausted after a seven-game triumph over the younger New Orleans Hornets, but its title defense endures - for now.
Ginobili scored 26 points, including four free throws in the final minute, to send the Spurs to the Western Conference finals with a 91-82 victory Monday night.
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.
"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 that he was proud that his team, which did not make the playoffs last season, pushed 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," Scott continued. "You don't go from not making the playoffs to winning a championship. It just doesn't work that way. ... We're headed in the right direction."
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 on Wednesday night.
"People always talk about you being old because you don't dunk anymore or slash as fast as you used to slash, but we're one of the smartest teams in the league and we have a very good coaching staff," said Robert Horry, who's looking to be part of an eighth championship team in 16 seasons. "We didn't make stupid mistakes tonight."
West led the Hornets with 20 points, while Paul and Jannero Pargo each added 18 and Chandler finished with 13 points and 15 rebounds.
While the Hornets managed to hold Duncan under 20 points by crowding the inside, his Spurs teammates combined for 12 3-pointers to keep alive their chance to win back-to-back titles for the first time.
"We knew the shots were going to be there. It happened today that we just made more," said Ginobili, who made four 3-pointers. "We just let it fly."
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.
New Orleans cut a deficit as large as 17 down to three inside the final two minutes.
But after Pargo hit a 3-pointer, Parker drained a jumper on the other end with 50 seconds left to make it 85-80, and New Orleans could not recover.
"I'm glad that's over," Popovich said afterward. "The Hornets are an unbelievably tough team in every way you could imagine, and they had a fantastic year.
"I don't think there's any doubt their time will come."