The most imposing towers tonight in this city of skyscrapers were San Antonio Spurs stars Tim Duncan and David Robinson. Together, the super-sized tandem overcame the resilient New York Knicks and brought their team to within one victory of claiming its first NBA championship.
Robinson and Duncan combined for 42 points, 35 rebounds and 7 blocked shots in leading the Spurs to a 96-89 victory before a sellout crowd of 19,763 at Madison Square Garden.
San Antonio leads the best-of-seven series 3-1, a margin from which no team has come back in the NBA Finals. Game 5 is in New York Friday night. With one more victory, San Antonio will become the first Western Conference champion since the Houston Rockets in 1995 and the first former American Basketball Association franchise to win.
"We know we want to come in very focused this next game and get it out of the way," Duncan said. "We don't want to give them any opportunity for life. It's a one-game thing. We just want to knock them out."
The Spurs' inside dominance, rebounding edge (49-34) and clutch foul shooting down the stretch were the difference. The Knicks pulled to 86-84 with three minutes left before the Spurs reeled off six straight free throws to put the game out of reach.
"We made free throws and we made stops and that was the difference at the end," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said.
Added Duncan: "We've been a very good team down the stretch throughout the season."
Duncan finished with a game-high 28 points and 18 rebounds. Robinson added 17 rebounds and 14 points. They got some much-needed support from their fellow starters; Mario Elie added 18 points and Avery Johnson and Sean Elliott chipped in 14 apiece.
"Their size beat our speed and quickness tonight," Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy said.
Said Knicks center Marcus Camby: "We were never able to put bodies on them. We were scrambling, rotating because we were doubling."
Latrell Sprewell (26 points), Allan Houston (20 points) and Camby (20) carried the Knicks offensively, but none of them hit big baskets in the clutch. Houston went scoreless over the final five minutes and Sprewell scored just six points in the fourth quarter.
"I wasn't frustrated, I wasn't tired," Houston said. "I had some good looks. I probably could have taken it to the basket a little stronger. I made those shots most of the time I took them."
Though Camby provided New York with a third scorer, forward Larry Johnson had just five points and six rebounds. His disappearing act proved crucial as the Spurs' balance tipped the scales.
San Antonio's rebound from its Game 3 loss should have come as no surprise. After its May 11 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 2 of the first round, the Spurs strung together 12 victories, a run that was snapped Monday in Game 3. The Spurs have not lost back-to-back games since Feb. 26 and 28.
With the Knicks down by 12 points in the third and nine early in the fourth, Houston and Sprewell almost brought them back.
New York slowly chipped into San Antonio's lead and pulled to 81-80 when Charlie Ward made 1 of 2 foul shots with 5:24 left. Robinson answered with a layup to extend the Spurs' lead to three, Duncan followed with a short jumper to stretch the advantage to five and a free throw by Elie made it 86-80.
Like that, New York was back in a hole.
"The back-to-back buckets changed the momentum for us," said Elie, who was on Rockets teams that won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995.
Camby halved San Antonio's lead with a three-point play and Johnson made 1 of 2 free throws to make the score 86-84, but that was New York's last gasp. The magical run of the eighth-seeded Knicks appears to be coming to an end.
"Your backs can't be any further against the wall," Houston said. "This is something that you always welcome as a competitor. We're not hanging our heads. We're looking forward to the challenge."
Though the Knicks made things interesting late, the turning point in the game may have been San Antonio's 9-0 run at the outset of the third quarter. Elie and Duncan scored all the points, extending the Spurs' four-point halftime lead to 13.
"From that point on it seemed like we were playing on our heels," Camby said.
Every starter for the Spurs scored in the first half but it was Duncan, who had 14 points, who provided San Antonio with its 50-46 halftime cushion. Duncan scored eight of the Spurs' final 10 points to help them fend off a New York team that had four starters post 10 points apiece in the half.
San Antonio used a 6-0 run early in the second period, with four points coming from Johnson, to post a 33-31 lead. New York stayed within reach and took a short-lived 39-38 lead on a short jump shot by Sprewell with six minutes left.
Robinson answered with a short jump shot and San Antonio never trailed again in the quarter.
Wizards Notes: Washington Wizards Coach Gar Heard said he hopes to have former Howard University and New Jersey Nets coach Butch Beard hired as his lead assistant coach by the weekend, although minor obstacles could stall the process.
Heard said he does not figure to have any other assistant coaches until after the June 30 draft at MCI Center.
On another note, Washington has worked out UNLV forward Shawn Marion and Connecticut guard Richard Hamilton this week.
The Wizards also have interviewed Miami (Ohio) forward Wally Szczerbiak. Washington holds the No. 7 and No. 35 picks.
CAPTION: Knicks guard Allan Houston (20 points) shoots over San Antonio Spurs' Jaren Jackson at Madison Square Garden.