Fourth-Quarter Horses The best bets to reach the Finals are the teams that have a thoroughbred they can ride down the stretch in tight games

May 26, 2002

During a timeout midway through the tight fourth quarter of Game
5 between Charlotte and New Jersey, Nets forward Kenyon Martin
circled the team huddle. "It's our time, baby!" he yelled. "Our
time!" Even though Elvis Costello's Pump It Up blared on the
P.A. system, Martin's declaration was audible to fans seated a
dozen rows behind the Nets' bench. Staid and stone-faced, point
guard Jason Kidd nodded and, in more subdued tones, echoed the
phrase to his teammates: "It's our time."

What Kidd could have said was it's my time. As he has done
throughout the playoffs, with the outcome hanging in the
balance, Kidd commandeered the game. Immediately following the
timeout, he made like a free safety and intercepted a pass, then
raced downcourt for a twisting, left-handed layup. Barely a
minute later, Kidd whistled a perfect pass to Kerry Kittles for
a three-pointer. On the next possession he stripped Hornets
guard David Wesley near midcourt and initiated a fast break that
led to a Todd MacCulloch basket. Finally, with less than a
minute left, Kidd shoveled a perfect no-look alley-oop to
Martin. What moments earlier had been a four-point Charlotte
lead was now a 99-91 Nets advantage. Game over. Series over.
"It's been like this all year," says Nets coach Byron Scott.
"When the game is on the line, Jason makes the big plays."

The boneyard of this year's playoffs is filled with teams whose
stars--yes, you, Tim Duncan, Baron Davis, Jerry Stackhouse and
Dirk Nowitzki--made like hockey players and stopped performing
after three periods. One thing common to the teams still in the
playoffs is the presence of a player who delivers in the fourth
quarter. Late-game excellence takes different forms, but it is a
prereq for postseason success.

Piercing Intensity

Late in Game 4 of Boston's first-round series against
Philadelphia, Celtics coach Jim O'Brien used Paul Pierce as a
decoy on a pick-and-roll by forward Rodney Rogers and guard
Kenny Anderson. The play broke down, and the ball was swung to
forward Antoine Walker, who launched an errant three-pointer. As
the Sixers grabbed the rebound and celebrated, one could almost
see cartoon clouds of anger and frustration emanating from
Pierce's ears. Normally mild-mannered, Pierce flung his chewing
gum to the floor and shouted an obscenity. Even after he had
cooled off, he said, "The play should have come my way."

It usually does. Earlier in the season, Walker and Pierce were
both hell-bent on being the proverbial Man, the player for whom
the team ran sets in the waning moments of tight games. As the
season progressed, there was neither a formal edict nor a moment
of reckoning, but the late-game pecking order became apparent:
Pierce was the first option, Walker the second. "They both get
their looks," says Anderson, "but Paul's our go-to guy, no
question."

While Walker scores prodigiously (he averaged 22.1 during the
regular season), he tends to be streaky, and the offense can
stagnate when he has the ball. A 6'5" swingman, Pierce possesses
a three-point shot that commands respect (he averaged 26.1); but
he is equally capable of driving, draining medium-range shots,
fading away or getting to the line. "If they play him
one-on-one, he's such a tough cover, he'll probably get the
shot," says O'Brien. "If they double him, he has teammates who
can hurt you."

Pierce reckons that he's always taken the big shots since his
junior year of high school. Not that he would want it any other
way. "If I make it? Great. If I miss it? Oh, well," he says. "But
I want to be the one with the chance to carry the team. Those
shots are like breaths to me: Each and every one really means
something. What's wrong with wanting to be in the middle of
things when the game's on the line?"

Nothing. Particularly when you have his success rate. He was the
league leader in fourth-quarter production during the regular
season and scoring average during the playoffs (8.3). On Sunday
he scored eight fourth-quarter points but missed five free
throws and was outplayed by Kidd. Not surprisingly, Boston lost
104-97.

As for Walker, he still makes baskets in the fourth quarter,
just not at the rate he does in quarters one through three.
Through Sunday he was averaging 22.4 points overall, but just
3.9 in the final period. His willingness to pass the baton to
Pierce has been critical to the Celtics' success. "I look at it
like Jordan and Pippen," he says. "I'm cool with being Pippen.
When you have a pure scorer like Paul, you'd be foolish not to
use him."

Any Which Way but Lose

When Jason Kidd shoots, the ball spins awkwardly off his hands,
his motion more shot put than fluid stroke. Even in practice he
tosses enough bricks to construct that new arena his team wants
in downtown Newark. Though his scoring average has risen from
14.7 points during the regular season to 20.1 during the
playoffs, he continues to misfire on three of every five shots
(and that includes the driving, off-hand layup that has become
his postseason forte). So far in the playoffs Kidd has attempted
13 three-point shots in the fourth quarter. One has gone in.

That's not the profile of a classic late-game star. Yet this
postseason, no player has displayed more grace under pressure
than Kidd. "People think a go-to guy is someone you go to for
baskets," says Hornets coach Paul Silas. "Jason has proved that
it can also be someone you go to for an assist, a big rebound, a
defensive stop or whatever else." That "whatever else" includes
everything from making a timely theft to something as subtle as
drawing a foul on a key member of the opposition. Above all,
Kidd has imbued his teammates with an unshakable sense that they
will win. Somehow. "It's like Jason decides that we're not
losing tonight, period," says Nets guard Lucious Harris. "We
just follow his lead--and, of course, hit our open shots when he
gets us the ball."

The Nets took a 13-point lead into the fourth quarter of
Sunday's game, thanks largely to Kidd, who was well on his way
to a triple double. (He finished with 18 points, 13 rebounds, 11
assists.) In the game's last 12 minutes Kidd had no field goals
but three assists and three rebounds, and he made a critical
play when he took a late charge from Pierce. "There's such a
calmness there," says Nets president Rod Thorn. "He has the
ability to really heighten his focus under pressure, and a lot
of guys don't have that." (Though he's had a very productive
postseason, the Nets' second-leading scorer, Keith Van Horn, has
just seven fourth-quarter field goals in 11 playoff games.)

Kidd proffers two explanations for his preternatural ability to
make the climactic plays. He claims to ration his energy and
rest during the first half so that, as he puts it, "I can save
some in the tank for down the stretch." He also calls upon his
powers of concentration. "Earlier in the game, I'm feeling my
way through, I'm worried about getting teammates going, and I'm
maybe not so focused on the rim," he says. "By the end I'm zoned
in."

Ironically, Kidd's perceived shortcomings in crucial games
factored heavily in his trade from Phoenix to New Jersey last
summer. Suns executives pointed out that in Kidd's five seasons
in the desert, the team had won only one playoff series. What
must they be thinking now? "He's taking over games without
scoring," says Charlotte forward P.J. Brown. "That shows me he
should have been the MVP."

Lord of the Rings

Sure, Kobe Bryant's knack for walking on air recalls a young
Michael Jordan. As does the near automatic medium-range jumper,
the relentless on-the-ball defense, the array of head fakes that
can deprive an opponent of his jock. But the most important
similarity between the two may well be neurological. Like
Jordan, Bryant came into the NBA impervious to stage fright.

Five years ago, as an 18-year-old rookie, Bryant memorably
hoisted four long-range jumpers in the waning moments of the
decisive playoff game against Utah. Never mind that he missed
all four shots--two of them air balls--and the Lakers lost. It
is the rare teenager who has the stones to take the shots
freighted with the most significance. "He's always demanded that
shot," says Lakers forward Rick Fox.

In the years since, Bryant's late-game confidence hasn't
wavered, but his aim has improved. Through Sunday he was
shooting 39.6% this postseason in the first three quarters and
51.0% in the final one, including a string of seemingly
impossible fallaways with defenders all over him. In Game 1 of
the Conference Finals last Saturday, the Lakers began the fourth
quarter with a 13-point lead, and Bryant doused any chance of a
Sacramento comeback, scoring 10 points. In Game 2 on Monday,
Bryant was hampered by a bout of food poisoning. He still scored
22 points--but only five in the fourth quarter--in a 96-90 loss.

Having mastered the geometry of the triangle offense--sound
familiar?--Bryant has a battery of options when the game is on
the line. When a big guard, such as the Kings' Doug Christie,
defends Bryant, Kobe can request a clear out and blow past him.
(As Sacramento is discovering, if the opposing big man comes out
to help, he risks leaving unguarded a burly fellow named
O'Neal.) Assign a smaller, quicker guard to Bryant, such as
Bobby Jackson, and he can shoot over him. "We trust Kobe with
the ball because we want to see him make those plays," says Fox.
"You come to expect it. It almost gets old."

The Lakers, however, do more than stand idly by and admire
Bryant's handiwork. Like Jordan, Bryant has the faith in his
teammates to feed them the ball when the defense converges on
him. L.A. closed out Portland in the first round when Bryant
thwarted a triple team and passed off to Robert Horry for a
game-winning three-pointer. (This came after Bryant drilled a
cold-blooded three on the previous possession.)

Bryant's maturation shows--he makes a point of saving his best
for last. "I've been reading the defenses the first three
quarters," he says. "Then, in the fourth quarter, I take
advantage of what I see." Hmmm. Remind you of anyone?

First among Equals

After Sacramento beat the Utah Jazz in the first round, Kings
point guard Mike Bibby sought out his counterpart, John
Stockton. "Thank you," Bibby said. "Thank you for showing me
what playoff basketball is all about." Bibby proved a quick
study. Playing in the postseason for the first time, he doomed
Utah with his outside shooting, his penetration and his poised
piloting of the team's offense. In the next round against
Dallas, he made the biggest play of the series when, late in
overtime of Game 4, he blew past Michael Finley for a layup.

Unlike the other three remaining teams, the Kings have no
designated fourth-quarter focal point, especially since Peja
Stojakovic was sidelined with a severely sprained right ankle in
Game 3 of their second round playoff series. "When you have a
guy like Kobe, it's easier because you know you can go to him,"
says Kings coach Rick Adelman. "Sometimes we have to try to find
who's going well."

That Bibby is often that player is surprising, since he spent
his first three seasons in Vancouver, where the outcome of games
was often beyond doubt by the fourth quarter. What's more, even
in college at Arizona, he was generally the third option. "You
look at him, and he doesn't appear to be anything out of the
ordinary," says Kings assistant coach John Wetzel. "But he's
real tough-minded. He doesn't get rattled easily."

For all that, Sacramento must still rely on a
go-to-guy-by-committee. That approach has its advantages: The
lack of an obvious threat can make preparation and defense
difficult. On the other hand, with few set plays for a specific
player, Sacramento's offense has been prone to breakdowns. On
Saturday the Kings were desperate for a player--any player--to
come to the fore. None did, including Bibby, who made only one
of his five shots in the fourth quarter. He redeemed himself in
Game 2, hitting three jumpers in the last seven minutes. In
fact, ask three Kings to name their favorite "closer," and you
get five different answers. Forward Scot Pollard cites Bibby and
Webber. Jackson disagrees. "Since Peja is out, I'm going into
the paint. Gotta get the ball to Vlade." Christie says, "I think
Chris is our main guy, but even he is going to defer if he's
double-teamed."

Noble as it may be, this sharing-is-caring approach may, in the
end, be the Kings' undoing. Late in playoff games the Kings,
like all teams, need autocracy, not democracy.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH COVER INSET NBA Playoffs CRUNCH TIME Kobe Bryant COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER CAPTAIN KIDD Nets point guard Jason Kidd, with a bandage over his lacerated brow, blows a kiss to his family before taking a foul shot. [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER PHOTO FINISHERS Kidd (left) and Pierce were picture perfect in the clutch all year long, and they have looked just as good in the playoffs. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH MAN-CHILD AMONG BOYS Bryant's scoring and shooting percentages go up dramatically when the game's on the line. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH GETTING TO THE POINT Stojakovic's injury has forced the Kings to search for a finisher, a role that Bibby (10) has thrown himself into. COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN GREEN'S COMMITTEE Walker (8) and Pierce shared clutch duties early in the year, but Pierce is now the first option for last shots. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH SPORT OF KINGS Several players have taken the pressure shots for Sacramento, including their big money guy, Webber.

Masters of the End Game
It's no coincidence that the teams that are best in the fourth
quarter have advanced in the NBA playoffs. The question is: Can
the Lakers and the Nets sustain their fourth-quarter superiority
in the conference finals?
4TH-QUARTER AND OT
4TH-Q & OT POINTS 4TH-Q AND OT POINT DIFFERENTIAL
PER GAME FOR POINTS AGAINST PER GAME

Lakers 25.4 21.3 +4.1
Nets 25.3 22.7 +2.6
Hornets 23.0 21.4 +1.6
Celtics 23.6 22.1 +1.5
Trail Blazers 27.3 26.0 +1.3
Kings 23.8 22.8 +1.0
SuperSonics 21.0 20.4 +0.6
Jazz 24.0 24.3 -0.3
Pistons 20.0 20.6 -0.6
Timberwolves 22.7 23.7 -1.0
Pacers 24.4 25.6 -1.2
Raptors 32.0 33.2 -1.2
Mavericks 24.6 26.4 -1.8
Spurs 19.0 23.0 -4.0
Sixers 23.8 25.6 -1.8
Magic 22.5 30.5 -8.0

"[Kidd] is taking over games without scoring. That shows me he
should have been the MVP."

Sacramento must still rely on a go-to-guy-by-committee. That
approach has its advantages.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)