Before accepting his job as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this month, former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson said that this year's NBA championship would be tainted.
A lockout-shortened season without Michael Jordan would tarnish any new champion, he said, for that team would truly not have earned its rings.
After defeating the New York Knicks, 78-77, Friday night to claim their first NBA title, the San Antonio Spurs didn't put much credence in Jackson's disclaimer.
"It wasn't our fault that they had a lockout," Spurs guard Mario Elie said. "I thought the NBA picked up quite well. Early, it was a struggle. Guys didn't come in in shape. Jordan did everything he did, give some other people another chance to get rings. I thought it was a terrific playoffs.
"Guys like Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan . . . we had a chance to see great young players. This was a hard playoffs. The Knicks wanted it just as bad as we wanted it. Fortunately, we came out on top. I don't care what Phil Jackson said.
"I'm going to cherish this ring and wear it proudly."
With their 15-2 blitz through the postseason, which included a four-games-to-one series victory over New York, the Spurs played just 67 games this year -- 15 fewer than in a normal regular season. The labor struggle cut the regular season to 50 games, many of which were eyesores.
That the last game played this season ended with New York and San Antonio scoring fewer than 80 points apiece was indicative of the lack of offense leaguewide. Keep in mind, though, that the Spurs and Knicks were among the top defensive teams in the NBA.
Even so, the 91.5-point average throughout the NBA this season was the lowest point production in at least a decade. Only the upstart Sacramento Kings averaged more than 100 points per game.
The 50-game season was the league's shortest but it was more than long enough for the NBA to realize something had be done to boost scoring. A committee made several recommendations to increase scoring opportunities -- largely by penalizing teams for playing physical defense -- and rules could go into effect by next season.
Television ratings were down as well. Without Jordan and with the defending champion Bulls dismantled, there was no player or team for the masses to latch on to. And though the Spurs have arguably the game's best player in Duncan, the Finals' most valuable player, they compete in the league's smallest television market and were rarely broadcast nationally before the postseason.
Even so, the competitive natures of the league's players and coaches seldom waned. The Knicks were a prime example.
New York, which probably experienced more inner turmoil than any other team in the NBA, was the lowest-seeded team ever to make it to the Finals. The No. 8-seeded Knicks competed in the championship series without star center Patrick Ewing, who suffered a partially torn left Achilles' tendon in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers.
That was no consolation after losing to the Spurs, though.
"It's painful to hear them celebrating," Ewing said. "I remember all the feelings and emotions I had when we lost [to the Houston Rockets] in 1994. It's the same feeling, even though I wasn't out there playing. I'm very disappointed."
Ewing had to watch Spurs center David Robinson, who had been hailed individually but also maligned in his 10 years in the NBA for not winning a title, celebrate his first championship. In 14 NBA seasons, Ewing has yet to experience that joy.
In an even odder twist, San Antonio guard Jaren Jackson became the first of John Thompson's Georgetown Hoyas to win a title.
"I want to let any publishers out there know, I've got a story to tell," Jackson said. "It would be a great book, a big seller. . . . CBA, WBL, I've been all over. I've got rings all over the place, but this -- I just won an NBA one."
With the emergence of Duncan and the breakthrough seasons for New York's Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell, the first NBA Finals of the new millennium could very well be a rematch.
However, the table was set this season for even more potential change.
The Philadelphia 76ers with Iverson, the Sacramento Kings, led by Chris Webber and Jason Williams, the multitalented Portland Trail Blazers and the Toronto Raptors all made enough progress to shake up the status quo. The Utah Jazz, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks are aging fixtures on borrowed time.
Even after winning a title in his second season, Duncan warned that nobody should take anything for granted.
"It's a blessing to get where I am now," Duncan said. "There is no guarantee I'll ever get back. So I'm enjoying this team, documenting this time and hopefully we'll be back. If we don't I'll always have this with me."
CAPTION: Composite Box Score (This graphic was not available)
CAPTION: Tim Duncan (21), David Robinson (50) and other jubilant Spurs don't seem to feel that a shortened season tainted their title. "I thought it was a terrific playoffs," said Mario Elie.