Gregg Popovich loosened his tie and leaned back in his Alamodome
office chair last Friday night, an hour after the San Antonio
Spurs had gone up two games to none over the New York Knicks in
the NBA Finals. But despite his body language, Popovich, the San
Antonio coach, was anything but relaxed. "[Team owner Peter
Holt] came in a few minutes ago and asked me if I was having fun
yet," he said. "I told him yes, but I was lying my rear end off."
Popovich wasn't enjoying himself because he was one of the few
observers of Game 2 who didn't think it was safe to put in an
order for a black-and-silver championship banner. While the fans
outside were still chanting for a sweep, Popovich was thinking
of the potential hazards that lay ahead. In fact, if the Spurs
were to lose Game 3 on Monday night in New York, he felt he knew
how it would happen. "If they beat us, it will probably be
because a third scorer steps up to help [Allan] Houston and
[Latrell] Sprewell, they get their team field goal percentage up
around 48, and we get lazy on our transition defense and give
them some easy baskets," Popovich said.
Popovich didn't get the specifics quite right, but his uneasy
feeling was well-founded. The Knicks revived themselves--and
breathed life into a series that threatened to drive more people
from their TV sets than a Richard Simmons infomercial--with an
89-81 victory at Madison Square Garden. Although forward Larry
Johnson (16 points) did provide scoring support for Houston (34)
and Sprewell (24), New York came up with a victory largely
because coach Jeff Van Gundy made a strategic shift. He
stationed the two Knicks being guarded by Tim Duncan and David
Robinson near the three-point arc, drawing the Spurs' 7-footers
away from the basket. With neither San Antonio big man clogging
the lane, Houston and Sprewell not only found it easier to get
inside but were also able to draw fouls on their smaller
defenders, combining for 18 points from the line.
In light of how deflated the Knicks had seemed after losing the
first two games in San Antonio, their breakthrough was all the
more remarkable. The Spurs' intelligent, intimidating defense,
the most underrated aspect of their game, had prevented
fast-breaking New York from stepping on the accelerator. In the
half-court San Antonio had made Houston and Sprewell look like
Allen Iverson on a bad night. With Patrick Ewing sidelined, the
Knicks had no low-post offense to speak of and little choice but
to let their two guards go one-on-one, which they gamely did to
no great effect. In the Spurs' 80-67 win in Game 2, Houston and
Sprewell combined to outscore Duncan and Robinson 45-41, but the
New York guards needed 17 more shots to do it. They also needed
hard hats and work gloves to get their points, while San
Antonio's twin towers could have scored in white tie and tails.
Even when Houston and Sprewell did loop an acrobatic shot over
Duncan or Robinson, or hit a tough fallaway over Mario Elie or
Sean Elliott, it was as if they had scored in a vacuum, because
their points didn't open up other offensive avenues. On the
other hand, the inside success of Duncan and Robinson forced New
York to double-team those two even more. That led to
opportunities for other Spurs, such as guard Jaren Jackson (five
three-pointers in Game 1) and Elie (15 points in Game 2). "It's
discouraging," said Knicks point guard Chris Childs after Game
2. "After the first game [an 89-77 San Antonio win], I thought
we had made the necessary adjustments and that we would play
much better tonight. To come out and have some of the same
problems again really makes you think."
The Spurs' defense was a formidable enough obstacle to overcome,
but as usual with the Knicks, there was a fair amount of
off-the-court intrigue to deal with as well. Sprewell spent a
good part of his week denying an SI report that he had told
teammates that he won't play for Van Gundy next season and wants
to be traded to the Atlanta Hawks if Van Gundy returns. Although
both player and coach downplayed reports of friction between
them--"If they can't get you on results, they'll get you on
relationships," Van Gundy said--there were moments early in the
series that could be interpreted as signs of tension. In Game 1,
for instance, Van Gundy looked deeply pained when Sprewell went
to help on defense and left the hot-shooting Jackson wide open
for a trey. Sprewell, in turn, seemed slightly irritated with
Van Gundy (though he was, as usual this season, almost
Stepford-pleasant with the media) for not pairing him in the
backcourt with Houston, a move that could have exploited the
Spurs' 5'11" point guard, Avery Johnson. The Knicks worked on
the set in practice, but Van Gundy didn't use it in the first
two games. "I'd just like to see us try it," Sprewell said after
Game 2. "We're in a situation where we need to do something to
force them to react to us."
On Monday the Knicks finally gave the Spurs something to react
to--San Antonio's first loss after a record 12 straight playoff
victories, with Games 4 and 5 scheduled for Wednesday and Friday
at Madison Square Garden. But as encouraging as the win was for
New York, the Spurs didn't seem terribly rattled, probably
because the presence of Duncan, who appeared well on his way to
winning the Finals MVP award with averages of 26.0 points and
14.3 rebounds, can do wonders for a team's composure. Whenever
the Spurs were in trouble, particularly in the first two games,
they turned to Duncan, who consistently went around or over New
York's overmatched big men. "We try not to keep leaning on him,"
Elliott said of Duncan after Game 2, "but he is a little bit of
a security blanket."
Aside from Duncan, though, the Spurs didn't dazzle anyone with
their offense through the first three games of the series; their
D was so good that it didn't matter. When San Antonio drafted
Duncan No. 1 out of Wake Forest two years ago, Popovich decided
to simplify the team's defensive plans until he had a better
idea of how much the rookie could absorb, mentally and
physically. At the end of training camp, when it became clear
that the chances of Duncan's being overwhelmed in either area
were about the same as a summer snowfall in San Antonio,
Popovich began to add more wrinkles to the Spurs' scheme. What
evolved was a system that limited opponents to 41.1% field goal
accuracy in 1997-98, the lowest since 1970-71, which was when
the league began keeping the statistic--until San Antonio broke
its own record this season by lowering that number to 40.2%.
It's not just the presence of the two 7-foot sentinels that
makes the Spurs a brilliant defensive team. In fact, one of the
elements that make San Antonio's approach unique is the ability
of Robinson, the team's best overall defender, and Duncan to
extend their patrol far beyond the lane. In Game 2, for example,
Duncan stationed himself near the basket to cut off a baseline
drive by Childs, forcing him to dish to Larry Johnson at the top
of the key. By the time the pass arrived Duncan had too, denying
Johnson what would have been an open three-point shot against
most teams. It was the kind of quietly sensational defensive
play that leaves no footprint in the box score.
Given the extraordinary luxury of twin intimidators, Popovich
designed his defense around a few basic principles. One of them
is that most offensive players regard the area between the
three-point line and the basket as a kind of limbo. "We believe
that players don't make midrange shots anymore," he said after
Game 2. "They can shoot threes, and they can go to the hole and
be athletic, but hardly anybody wants to stop in the middle
these days. So that's exactly what we try to make them do."
That's why it's not unusual to see Duncan or Robinson venturing
out to put a hand in a potential three-point shooter's face.
Each is mobile enough to get there quickly, leaving the other to
take care of matters inside.
San Antonio also concentrates on forcing ball handlers to the
baseline, where one of the big men will be waiting. That means
the Spurs' perimeter defenders don't have to be especially fast
to be effective. "Our guys can overplay, knowing that as long as
they keep their man out of the lane, they've done their job,"
Popovich says. "They don't have to make any decisions. They
don't have to play anybody straight up. If your guy is quicker
than you are, don't worry about it. Just make sure that if you
get beat off the dribble, you get beat toward the baseline."
The Knicks found out just how stifling the San Antonio defense
can be in the first two games, when they shot only 35.3% from
the floor and had 17 of their shots blocked, all but one of them
by Duncan or Robinson. Even when the Spurs' big men didn't get
their hands on shots, their presence was felt. New York missed
more bunnies than a nearsighted hunter, largely because Knicks
shooters seemed to be looking for Robinson and Duncan out of the
corners of their eyes. "You know they're coming, but you have to
avoid hurrying your shot to keep it from being blocked, or
you've just done their work for them," Childs said after Game 2.
"Unfortunately, that's easier said than done."
With Ewing in civvies, the Knicks didn't expect to get much
offensive production inside. It was San Antonio's success in
limiting New York's transition game that doomed the Knicks. The
Spurs actually outscored them 12-4 in fast-break points in Game
2, and a telling sequence came in the third quarter: Sprewell
took off on one of his full-court dashes with only Elie back on
defense, or so it seemed. Duncan sprinted into the picture as
Sprewell went into the air, and instead of finishing with a
floating finger roll or a dunk as he had done so often against
Miami, Atlanta and Indiana earlier in the postseason, Sprewell
could only bail himself out with a pass toward half-court. The
Knicks didn't score on the possession.
New York finally solved the Spurs' defense well enough in Game 3
to slow San Antonio's march through the postseason, at least
temporarily. "We have to decide if we just want to avoid a
sweep," Van Gundy said on Sunday, "or if we still believe we can
win this series." On Monday night the Knicks clearly were
leaning toward the latter. They learned that they do have enough
firepower to overcome the Spurs' defense, and that if they can
keep San Antonio's perimeter scorers in check, Duncan and
Robinson alone can't beat them.
Despite the Spurs' stumble, the title was still theirs to lose.
After Game 3 the real issue was not whether the Knicks believed
they could make it a competitive series, but whether San Antonio
would let them.
that's exactly what we try to make them do."