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1999 NBA Playoffs

The real MVP

San Antonio's stingy defense puts clamps on Knicks again

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Posted: Saturday June 26, 1999 09:21 AM

  The Spurs clamped down on Allan Houston (right), allowing him only one shot in the fourth quarter. AP

By John Donovan, CNN/SI

NEW YORK -- Tim Duncan and his 35 points were absolutely awesome. Avery Johnson nailed the shot that finally did in the New York Knicks.

But it was the San Antonio Spurs' defense -- once again -- that pulled out the victory and gave the franchise the first NBA title in their 26-year history.

Down by three points with 3:58 remaining and facing a Game 6 in San Antonio that they really didn't want to play, the Spurs clamped down on the Knicks' shooters, holding them without a basket -- and to only two free throws -- for the rest of Game 5 of the 1999 NBA Finals.

"That's what we do. We grind it out for 48 minutes, and we're going to turn up the defensive intensity in the last four or five minutes," Duncan said. "We win these kind of games."

The Knicks, with Latrell Sprewell on fire, had six shots at the basket in those last minutes and managed only two Sprewell free throws.

This is what else happened: A Sprewell layin that stuck on the rim, a wild 27-foot jumper by Chris Childs to try to beat the shot clock, another missed 3-pointer by Larry Johnson (he was 2-for-18 in the series, or 11 percent), a jumper by Sprewell from the right wing that went long and, finally, a missed desperation turnaround jumper by Sprewell at the buzzer that missed.

Silent throughout the final few minutes -- throughout the final period -- was Knicks sharpshooter Allan Houston, who had only one shot in the fourth quarter and finished with 16 points.

"They did a good job denying him the ball," said Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy. "We were trying to get the ball to him. They played great defense."

The Spurs changed up their defense slightly in the final minutes, mainly because they needed two bodies on the red-hot Sprewell, who finished with 35 points.

"We didn't do anything differently, defensively, except double-team Spree or Allan quicker than we had the rest of the game, and we talked about getting out of the double team quicker when the ball was kicked," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "I think it enabled us to stay in front of them a little better."

The Spurs actually had their worst defensive game, in terms of the Knicks' shooting percentage, in the five-game series. The Knicks shot 44.4 percent. They had been held to just 38 percent through the first four games.

But the San Antonio defense came up big when it counted. Probably no one stop was bigger than the last stop they had to make.

With 2.1 seconds left and down by one point, the Knicks ran an inbounds play for Sprewell, who took the pass from quarterback-turned-point guard Charlie Ward.

"[We] ran a play we call 'Quick' that we only used once this year," Van Gundy said. "We got it where we wanted it. I thought he was just a little too far under the basket."

The play was designed to look like Sprewell was setting a screen for Houston, But then Sprewell would slip down the lane to the basket, instead.

The pass from Ward got to Sprewell easily enough, but by the time he gathered it in, he was under the backboard with no shot. He had to wheel to the left baseline, where he tried to put a shot up over Duncan and Sean Elliott.

Airball. Game over.

"Our assistant called that play. We knew it was coming," Elliott said. "We used that play about three or four years ago and beat some teams. I think we called it 'New York.' It's a great play."

The Spurs set records by holding the Knicks to the fewest points by a team over a five-game series, the fewest field goals and the fewest assists in a five-game set. The Knicks were held to 79.8 points a game in the series.

And that, in a nutshell, is why San Antonio has the 1999 NBA title.

"The good thing about it is we ended with a stop," said the Spurs' Antonio Daniels. "We preached defense all year and that defense wins championships and we ended the game, we needed a stop, and we got it. That's what Spurs basketball was all about this year."

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