In a season unlike any other, it seemed fitting that the NBA championship was won by a team making its first Finals appearance on a shot by a player who, at one time, wasn't considered good enough to play in this league.
Avery Johnson's baseline jump shot with 47 seconds left earned the San Antonio Spurs their first league title with a riveting 78-77 victory tonight over the New York Knicks, who valiantly fought to extend their magical postseason run.
"It's incredible," said Johnson, who was cut twice during his career with the Spurs. "On that particular play I was open. I felt good. That's my shot. The guys have a lot of confidence in getting me the ball. . . . This had been an example of not giving up."
Said San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich: "You wonder if this is really true. You wonder what you're doing here. . . . I guess those are the things I'm feeling. Real lucky."
The Spurs lost just twice during the postseason, once each in the first and last series. It was one of the most commanding playoff runs in recent history.
With Michael Jordan out of the picture, Finals MVP Tim Duncan and the Spurs etched their places in the history books by defeating an undermanned New York team that barely made the playoffs. San Antonio became the first former American Basketball Association franchise to win an NBA title.
They won it on Johnson's shot, which swished through the net after Sean Elliott kicked out a pass as New York's defense converged into the lane. The basket highlighted a stretch in which San Antonio held the Knicks scoreless for the final 3 minutes 12 seconds of the fourth quarter.
Even so, the game at Madison Square Garden went down to the final second. Johnson missed a three-point shot as the shot clock expired and the game clock was showing 2.1 seconds, and New York called a play for Latrell Sprewell.
Sprewell caught the ball close to the Knicks' basket, but missed a fadeaway jumper in heavy traffic. "That's what we do -- we grind it out for 48 minutes and turn up the defensive intensity the last four, five minutes," said Duncan, who scored 31 points. "We knew we were still in it and we win these kind of games."
San Antonio's championship was the first for its keystone center, David Robinson. The 10-year veteran has won nearly every individual accolade, but he had been chided at times for not being able to get his team a ring. Now his stature among the game's best players likely will be validated.
"This goes a long way toward fulfilling those dreams," said Robinson (15 points, 12 rebounds). "That one big goal that I had and achieving that goal, it's been met. I got to set new goals. If this was easy it really wouldn't be worth the journey. That's what makes it so special."
Spurs forward Sean Elliott said of Robinson: "He's been maligned year after year, even after all he's done. It's different when he can be the leader and help lead us to championship. I think he deserves a lot of credit. Everything that has been said and written about him is no longer relevant."
Sprewell kept the Knicks close with one of the most spectacular individual performances in the playoffs, scoring a game-high 35 points -- 25 in the second half -- and grabbing a team-high 10 rebounds. He scored the Knicks' first 10 points of the fourth quarter, the final two putting them ahead 68-65.
"It's all for nothing at this point," Sprewell said. "I felt really good out there, but I would rather have two points and have the victory."
Knicks guard Allan Houston added 16 points. Larry Johnson, who had the task of guarding Duncan, had seven points, as did Marcus Camby.
The Knicks were the first No. 8 seed to advance to the championship, beating Eastern Conference heavyweights Miami and Indiana to reach this point, sweeping through Atlanta in between. The postseason surge finally took the heat off Coach Jeff Van Gundy, who said today that management assured him it would honor the final two years of his contract.
"As disappointed as I am in the result for our guys, I really was hopeful for them that it would work out," Van Gundy said. "When it was tough going, unlike lot of teams and people, they didn't point fingers and blame each other. Coaches, nobody. They just kept persevering."
The Knicks played this series without star center Patrick Ewing (torn Achilles' tendon), and it hurt them having to face San Antonio's big men.
But Robinson and Duncan had help getting here.
Mario Elie, who won two championships with the Houston Rockets, had 10 points, and he made a big three tied the scored at 75 with 3:36 left. Reserve Jaren Jackson added 11 points, including a three-pointer at the end of the half that gave the Spurs a 40-38 lead.
"I think it's going to be very hard for me to explain how great this feels, and how important it was not only to win but to win it for people that have worked so hard like Dave, A.J. and Sean," Duncan said.
"They're people who have been right there, right on the brink of winning it and haven't been able to get over that edge. It's just an incredible feeling."
CAPTION: NBA Finals MVP Tim Duncan (31 points, 9 rebounds), right, Naval Academy's David Robinson (15 points, 12 rebounds) celebrate the Spurs' first championship.
CAPTION: For reckless driving, the Spurs' Mario Elie gets off with a slap on the wrist from the Knicks' Kurt Thomas as Larry Johnson looks on. Spurs are first team from old ABA to win NBA title.