Duncan off the glass at one end, Sprewell spinning away from a double-team at the other. Duncan with a hook, Sprewell with a fadeaway jumper. Duncan, a 7-footer, swishing a jumper from 18 feet one moment, Sprewell attacking the basket the next. At least this long strange season, desperately lacking for artistry, ended with a dream of a basketball game.

The one thing we missed during the Michael Jordan era was the fabulous back-and-forth, first one guy and then the other, like Wilt and Russell used to do, like Magic and Bird. Duncan and Sprewell don't play the same position, they don't guard each other, they rarely came nose-to-nose Friday night. Still, the NBA championship was decided on the league's most glamorous stage with Duncan and Sprewell getting it on in Game 5.

In about as fine a deciding game as anyone could ask for, the San Antonio Spurs rode the NBA's brightest young star to a championship. Duncan scored 31 points in more ways than a man has a right to, edging the Knicks and Sprewell, who scored 35 to electrify Madison Square Garden and keep anyone who appreciates a good duel on the edge of his seat.

"They both had great, great games," Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy said, still shaking his head 30 minutes later over what he'd seen. "Tim Duncan is a great player. And it's not just his skill level, but his maturity, his knowledge of the game. . . . That guy's truly into winning. He's somebody that the league can build around because of his unselfishness."

Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, who coached Sprewell as an assistant at Golden State and tried to trade for him two years ago, said: "Spree was fantastic. He got on one of those rolls where it didn't matter if you got on him or got off him, he was going to find a way to get it in the hole."

Playing one of the great games in NBA Finals history was of no consolation to a crushed Sprewell, who said, "It's all for nothing at this point."

Fabulous as he was, Sprewell's last shot was a little short and appeared to be a little late, ending the Knicks' improbable, dramatic, controversial season.

Brilliant as Duncan was, it was a jumper by journeyman guard Avery Johnson with 47 seconds left that provided San Antonio with its championship margin. And Johnson's heave, after a miss by David Robinson, with just more than five seconds left, hit the rim, bounced toward the corner, and consumed more than three invaluable seconds, leaving Sprewell with an inadequate 2.1 seconds to get off a final shot.

Of course Duncan was the MVP. "What a shock!" Van Gundy said in sarcastic admiration.

But the sentimental MVP was his fellow Twin Tower, Northern Virginia's David Robinson, the Naval Academy's David Robinson, NBA champion David Robinson.

His name will disappear from that list of players who have played fabulously for many years without winning a championship, a list that includes Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing.

"I kissed David," teammate Mario Elie said, "and told him, `You've shut everybody up now. When you write your autobiography, you better have a chapter about me.' " Elie, a member of Houston's back-to-back championship teams in the mid-90s, said, "I'm glad the good guy finally got one."

Robinson struggled with his emotions before the game, and after. "It's something that really balances my career," he said. "And it gives justification to all the work, the time that you put in."

Asked before the game if winning the title would make him feel complete, Robinson said: "I think I'm pretty complete before the championship. I didn't feel incomplete last year, and I don't think I would feel incomplete without it. But I think it gives my career a good balance. Big deal if you won stuff, scoring champ, defensive champ. . . . Big deal if it doesn't amount to anything. Now, it's amounting to something.

"Justified or not, I think as a leader the results do [fall] in your lap. It's how it is in this business, how it is in every other aspect of life. [The leaders] dictate the character of the team. You dictate the personality of the team. And justified or not, I've been willing to take that responsibility over my career.

"When people question your desire out there on the floor, that bothers you," Robinson continued. "It bothered me. So now, it's nice to kind of come to a point where people see that I can have the personality that I have and still be a champion. That's a nice feeling."

All the feel-good surrounding Robinson winning a championship and the Duncan-Sprewell theater was a fitting close to an abbreviated season and a series that, until the last two games, lacked drama and artistry.

Of course, there will be people who remember this season with an asterisk because it consisted of only 50 games, and it didn't have Jordan and his Bulls defending their sixth title.

But that's unfair to the Spurs, unfair particularly to Robinson, Duncan and Johnson, who went through this postseason 15-2, tying Chicago's 1991 record for victories in the playoffs. And it couldn't have happened to a better group of guys.

It's funny how victory tends to make everybody revisionist, particularly about a champ. The Spurs are deserving of every compliment they get, now and forever more. It's a champion's right. But let's not get too carried away here. The Spurs were soft. As Charmin. If they hadn't been so soft, they wouldn't have gone out and gotten Elie, whom Duncan nicknamed "Havoc" because he wreaked it on the Spurs for playing with so little passion.

It's to their credit that they could address a glaring weakness and find a solution, that they could sweep two rounds of the playoffs, and lose only one game each in the other two rounds, that they could bring Duncan along, allow Robinson to remake himself 11 years into his career and come back -- yes -- tougher.

That, after all, is what champions do.