Hurly-burly Championship

June 26, 2005

With soul-patched Phil Jackson yammering about "reconciliation, redemption and reuniting" in the foreground and the threat of a lockout looming in the background--all to the accompaniment of remote controls clicking across the nation--the NBA Finals from Hell were trudging unnoticed toward the final curtain on Sunday when, suddenly, San Antonio Spurs forward Robert Horry descended to center stage, a 6'10" deus ex machina with a bum shoulder. ¶ "That was the greatest performance I've ever been a part of," said Tim Duncan after Horry's divine intervention had lifted the Spurs to a dramatic 96-95 overtime win over the Detroit Pistons and a 3-2 lead in the series. With San Antonio on the brink of losing its third straight at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Horry pumped in 21 points, 15 of them on threes, the last a crowd-silencing dagger with 5.8 seconds left in OT. Given that Horry hadn't scored until nine seconds remained in the third quarter, his final 17-plus minutes of play constituted one of the most remarkable stretches of brilliance in Finals history, especially considering that it came from a 34-year-old sub who had played the first half in stiff-legged futility.

But did Horry's star turn come too late? Could one timeless performance in one transcendent game save a series that had been plagued by four straight mismatches and had neither a marketable star nor a sexy story line? The American public is never sure what it wants from the NBA, but it clearly didn't want what Games 1 through 4 offered: defense-dominated blowouts (average victory margin: 21.0 points) involving B-list personalities. Despite the fact that almost any fan who happened to be watching Game 5 would have found it compelling, the overnight was only a 10.1. Before Sunday, ratings for the Finals were down 38.0% from last year. The buzz was just as bad. Can't get into it. Which one's Duncan? How about the Lakers' rehiring Phil?

At least fans in San Antonio and Detroit could find intrigue enough even before the Spurs' gut-wrenching win, which was assured only when Pistons guard Rip Hamilton missed a 10-foot jump shot with one second left. In Games 1 through 4 the ball was moving on offense; the defenses were rotating quicker than halftime drill teams; the adjustments by Detroit coach Larry Brown and his San Antonio counterpart, Gregg Popovich, were astute and even startling; the hometown loyalists in the seats were screaming their lungs out, pushing their teams to double-digit wins. But to the greater public it's almost as if the Finals were a primitive ceremony on a remote island, the rituals intense and emotional to the participants but thoroughly uninteresting to the uninitiated.

Pity those folks who missed the Game 5 display by Horry, a veteran with five NBA championships (two with the Houston Rockets, three with the Los Angeles Lakers), the alltime Finals leader in three-pointers (49, through Sunday) and one of the league's most engaging personalities. He played an execrable first half, missing all three of his shots by wide margins, failing to draw charges and never getting into the flow of the game. "I wasn't a very good teammate," Horry says. But he was the savior after intermission, burying his last six shots; if he'd failed to hit one of them, the Spurs likely would have lost. They included a thundering lefthanded dunk--flushed despite a pinched nerve in his left shoulder that has pained him all season--on which he took off 10 feet from the basket. What was Horry thinking as he soared to the hoop? "Please let me get there, please let me get there," he recalls.

Then there was the decisive trey, which wasn't high on San Antonio's list of options. Horry inbounded the ball from near midcourt to shooting guard Manu Ginobili, who was supposed to find space to go one-on-one or work a pick-and-roll with Duncan. But Horry's defender, Rasheed Wallace, inexplicably left him to double-team Ginobili in the corner--a decision tantamount to dropping your house keys at a burglar's feet--and Horry got the ball right back.

"I was all ready to just cut through when--whoa!--all of a sudden I was wide open," Horry says. "So I thought, I'm going to stay out here. Next thing I had the ball." Next thing Detroit knew, it had to win two games at the SBC Center to defend its title.

Horry has a loosey-goosey approach to life. "You gotta keep smiling and enjoy what you do," he says. That makes him an interesting contrast to Duncan, who is known for his poker face. But look closely and what you often see on TD's mug is pain, which was certainly the case after he missed 22 of 32 shots in Games 3 and 4, a major factor in San Antonio's 96-79 and 102-71 losses. Before Game 5, the primary question asked of the Spurs was, How is Tim? Tim certainly wasn't going to tell you. "He always takes the onus on himself for the way everybody plays," said forward Bruce Bowen. "We wish he didn't feel so responsible, get so down about things he can't control."

Duncan was a force throughout Game 5, finishing with 26 points and 19 rebounds, though he battled a bad set of nerves along the way. No one can accuse Duncan of being a choker--he was the Finals MVP when San Antonio won titles in 1999 and 2003--but, for a superstar, he can be vulnerable to pressure. You can almost hear his gears grinding as he overthinks certain situations. In the fourth quarter on Sunday, Duncan missed six of his last seven free throws as well as a tip-in at the buzzer that would have sealed the win in regulation. "What Robert did," says Duncan, "pulled me out of a hole."

Duncan's counterpoint on the Pistons is Brown, another tortured genius, who pulled out the Yiddish before Game 5. "All my life I've had tsuris," he said, a word that translates roughly to "troubles." There certainly has been much kvetching about his future with Detroit, which, as of Monday, remained uncertain. Brown said before Sunday's game that "my goal is to find a way to get well enough to come back here and coach," referring to the health issues he has been dealing with since complications set in after he had hip surgery last November. (He uses a catheter to urinate.) According to Pistons sources, it's likely that Brown will accept an offer to run basketball operations for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

If so, he'll leave behind a classy team that he remade in his image. His players weren't always fond of him, but they respected him and sacrificed their individual games in pursuit of excellence. (Hmmm, that sounds like something Jackson hopes will soon be said of him.) "We were like two trains on the wrong path just waiting to collide," says point guard Chauncey Billups of his initial relationship with Brown, who wants his QBs to pass first and shoot second. But even the coach had to admire Billups's game-high 34 points on Sunday. Without his steady hand, Detroit would have been drummed out of this series after getting torched in Games 1 and 2.

By contrast, San Antonio's point guard, Tony Parker, frequently lost his way during the Finals, as he did on Sunday night, committing six turnovers. When Parker is without his compass, Popovich has Ginobili run the attack, which he did in the fourth period and overtime of Game 5. Like Parker, Ginobili is prone to making careless passes, but he is stronger than Parker and better equipped to hang on to the ball when he ventures into the teeth of a tough Pistons defense. The Detroit frontcourtmen can all block shots, and they all swipe the ball--or "dig," in NBA parlance--to come up with steals. "They defend you up here," says Spurs assistant Don Newman, raising his arms high, "and they defend you down there," putting both arms close to the floor.

The Pistons' D was an insurmountable force in Games 3 and 4, even if America would have preferred watching Parker's teardrop shots fall and Ginobili's rococo finishes. "I guess fans want to see Phoenix against Dallas, alley-oops, dunks, up and down the court, three-pointers, stuff like that," says San Antonio backup guard Brent Barry. Not exactly. The Miami Heat was the top ratings draw in the postseason, explained primarily by the presence of the highly recognizable Shaquille O'Neal. "Hey, don't ask us to figure out what people want to see," Barry says. "Our guys are only on television. We're not in television."

The players' disgust with the topic of ratings was palpable and understandable. What could they do or say about it? I admit I'm just not as exciting as Shaq. The league office and the NBA Players' Association, however, both played a part in a public relations disaster. Commissioner David Stern and union chief Billy Hunter should have ridden together into San Antonio before Game 1--smiling, hands locked in triumph, LBJ and Kosygin at Glassboro--to announce a new collective bargaining agreement. Instead, Stern's one state-of-the-league press conference centered on the possibility of a July 1 lockout, a disaster both sides were trying to avert on Monday with negotiations in New York City.

Then, after the series had moved to The Palace, the Lakers heisted the NBA headlines with the announcement that Jackson--who laid bare the turmoil in L.A.'s locker room in a 2004 best-seller called, hysterically, The Last Season--had been rehired as coach for at least $30 million over three years. It was bad enough that the reunion of Jackson and Kobe Bryant, the player he trashed in his book, bordered on absurdity (Jackson spinning his money grab as a reunion between two soulful spirits). It was even worse that the airwaves and sports pages were full of nothing but Phil and Kobe, and, of course, Shaq commenting from Miami about Phil and Kobe.

Nor were the first four games much of a turn-on. Try as everyone did, there was no explaining the ridiculous margins, aside from the mystical advantage of home court--what Popovich called "the question of the ages." Even Detroit's redoubtable Wallace, who can explain anything, wasn't up to the task. "Definitely, the home crowd is important," said Sheed. "But this lopsidedness? I don't think it's that important." The blowouts negated what seemed to be the best thing the Finals had going in: competitive balance. If these were two teams whose slug-it-out style was hard to celebrate, well, at least each game would be a fight to the bitter end. Really? The collective fourth-quarter advantage by the winning team in Games 1 through 4 was 101-59.

That all changed in Game 5, which gave us a heroic Horry, a determined Duncan, a battling Billups and enough tsuris to last Larry a lifetime. "If fans couldn't appreciate that," said Barry, "they'll never appreciate anything about this game." That just might be the problem.

COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by John W. McDonough TWO AND 'FRO Ben Wallace (3) and the Pistons took control of the series in Games 3 and 4, but they lost their grip in 5. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by John W. McDonough HIGH EXPECTATIONS With every possession at a premium, Ben Wallace (3) made sure Duncan had little room to board.

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)