They don't need much help, Tim Duncan and David Robinson. So when Sean Elliott, Mario Elie and Avery Johnson showed up Wednesday night, the New York Knicks were in trouble. It's not much different for Robinson and Duncan than it was in Chicago when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen brought their A-plus games, or in Utah when Karl Malone and John Stockton were in fine form.
The support players for the Knicks and Spurs are roughly even. Robinson and Duncan are bigger and better than Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell. And that's why San Antonio is up 3-1 on the Knicks in the NBA Finals after winning 96-89 Wednesday night.
Duncan and Robinson were a tornado of blocked shots, intimidation and inside scoring. Duncan had 28 points and 18 rebounds; Robinson had 14 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. All of the Knicks, starting with the coach, lamented their getting crushed on the boards and not being able to score once the game was virtually even. But guess what?
It isn't likely to change. As Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy said, "Size does matter in this league, it does. Their size beat our speed and quickness tonight. Every penetration was a difficult, difficult shot. They got a lot of size rebounds, over the top. It wasn't us not blocking out. It was 50-50 and they just went over the top."
Unless Van Gundy imports some incredible shrinking machine, Robinson and Duncan are still going to be 7 feet tall Friday night for Game 5 in New York. Unless Reggie White or somebody comes in to miraculously heal Patrick Ewing, the Knicks are still going to be smaller, still going to get their shots swatted, still going to put 6-6 Larry Johnson on Duncan, who is at least five inches taller.
In the second half of Game 4, the Spurs outrebounded the Knicks 31-16. Duncan and Robinson, with 35 rebounds by themselves for the game, grabbed one more missed shot than all of the Knicks, who combined to grab 34. The Knicks hung in admirably, riding Sprewell, Houston and Marcus Camby to 81-80 with 5 minutes 25 seconds to play. But the game was decided on the next two possessions.
With Avery Johnson and Elie screaming at Robinson and Duncan to make quick moves and shoot over the smaller Knicks, Robinson spun quickly for a basket that made it 83-80, and Duncan fired up a bank hook before the Knicks' defense could arrive to make it 85-80. Doom.
Unless David is disguised as Michael Jordan, I'll take Goliath in the NBA. Especially when Goliath is 14 feet worth of basketball fantasy.
The Spurs don't need Elie, Johnson and Elliott to light it up. Nary a one of them needs to score 20 points or record a triple double. If they just chip in here and there, make a pass, finish on the break, get a hand in a shooter's face, don't throw the ball out of bounds, the Spurs are going to win.
Native New Yorker Elie atoned for a miserable Game 3 in front of 25 friends and family members by hitting 6 of 9 shots, scoring 18 points, grabbing six rebounds and handing out four assists. Johnson atoned for a miserable, turnover-marred Game 3 by scoring 14 points, driving to the basket to either score or dish (10 assists), and keeping the ball moving creatively all night. Elliott missed seven of his 11 shots, but he nailed two huge three-pointers, scored 14, dished four assists and blocked a shot. The Spurs had 23 assists at game's end to New York's 15.
The Knicks don't have an answer for that, not with Ewing on the sideline.
You know how many teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA championship? None. Nada. Zero.
"We're all about making history," Camby said.
Well, the Knicks are about to become history. It has been a helluva ride, but these Spurs aren't yesterday's Spurs. They're not soft, they're not shy or retiring.
If San Antonio plays like this again Friday night, the NBA Finals will be over. The Spurs' most impressive game of this series, maybe the last two series, quieted the Garden, and nullified another raging effort from Sprewell and Houston.
Finally, in Game 4, the Spurs and Knicks played what resembled championship basketball for an entire half. It was the first such stretch of basketball the teams had played simultaneously in this series.
Each team played to its strengths, which isn't a given with these two coaches. The Spurs outscored San Antonio in the lane during that first half 28-20, and the Knicks outscored the Spurs 10-0 on the fast break. The Spurs, with Robinson and Duncan patrolling the middle, blocked four shots to New York's one.
It was nice to get a glimpse of why these two teams were able to advance to the Finals in the first place. The Knicks, in these playoffs, have become a wonderfully entertaining end-to-end team featuring the stylish jump shooting of Houston and the cold-blooded dribble attack of Sprewell, who seems to play with the level of energy we've associated in recent years only with Jordan. In a 12-minute stretch Wednesday night when the Knicks erased a 13-point deficit, Sprewell and Houston scored 26 of New York's 29 points. "They're a running, jump-shooting team now, it's that simple," Robinson said of the Knicks earlier this week.
The Spurs, with Robinson and Duncan setting the tone, have been one of the few teams ever to make the Twin Towers concept work. Their ability to block shots on defense is completely disruptive to opponents. And since most teams have to double-team Robinson/Duncan on offense, it leaves Elliott, Elie, Johnson, Steve Kerr and Jaren Jackson with open shots as long as the ball moves.
We hadn't seen the Spurs utilize all their weapons in one game before Game 4. Asked pregame if the Spurs acknowledge they haven't played especially well in this series, Kerr said, "We haven't talked about it but that's definitely the case. Even in the first two games we won, we didn't play especially well."
But they did in Game 4, with Duncan again dominating his absurd matchup with Larry Johnson.
"I haven't seen anything phase Tim Duncan yet," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said. "Whether he plays well or poorly, he goes on to the next task at hand. He isn't bothered by any of it."