Duncan, Robinson lead San Antonio to first NBA title
Posted: Monday June 28, 1999 04:19 PM
NEW YORK (CNN/SI) -- The monkey has been shed and the critics have been silenced.
The Spurs will no longer be known as the "San Antonio softies" and if Tim Duncan wasn't considered as the best player in the NBA, he is now.
After 26 years of frustration and great teams that never produced a championship, San Antonio finally finished on top.
The best game of the NBA Finals, a thrilling 78-77 victory over the New York Knicks on Friday night, proved that the Spurs are the best team in the league.
San Antonio's run of success through the playoffs ended with a missed shot by the Knicks at the buzzer, a celebration in front of a stunned Madison Square Garden crowd and the Spurs' first NBA title.
On the game's final play, Charlie Ward's inbounds pass found Latrell Sprewell too far under the basket. Sprewell's awkward shot missed, and the Spurs stormed the court, their wives, children and girlfriends soon joining them to celebrate.
"It's a journey that goes to show that hard work and persistence truly pays off," said Robinson, who had been criticized during his 10-year career for not being able to lead his team to a title.
The victory, keyed by 31 points from finals MVP Duncan, gave San Antonio a 15-2 record in this postseason, tying the second-best playoff run in NBA history.
And with the way the 23-year-old Duncan combined with Robinson to form the dominant Twin Towers, the Spurs figure to be contending for more titles for years to come.
For now, though, this first title of the post-Jordan era will be the one they savor. San Antonio became the first of the old ABA teams that joined the league 23 years ago to win the championship.
"This is incredible. It feels so great out here," Duncan said. "We kept our focus and we pulled it out."
Said coach Gregg Popovich: "That's what it's all about for me, watching all the joy they felt when this was accomplished."
Game 5 of the best-of-7 series turned out to be the best of the bunch, with a back-and-forth fourth quarter featuring Sprewell, who scored 35 points, and Duncan doing most of the work for their teams.
The winning points, however, came from the shortest player on a team known for its height -- 5-11 point guard Avery Johnson, who hit a wide-open corner jumper with 47 seconds left.
Sprewell, closely guarded, missed a jumper with 26 seconds left, and the Spurs ran much of the remaining time off the clock before Robinson missed a runner that didn't hit the rim. Johnson then fired the ball off the back of the rim from long range, avoiding a 24-second violation, and the Knicks had only 2.1 seconds to set up the final shot.
Ward's pass found Sprewell almost directly under the basket, and his momentum carried him to the wrong side of the backboard and prevented him from getting a decent shot.
"We were trying to get a layup, Charlie threw an excellent pass, I was just so far under the basket, and with their size I didn't have a shot," Sprewell said.
The fans at the Garden, after a moment of silence, gave the Spurs a polite ovation as the teammates swarmed each other near New York's basket.
"We fought hard," Sprewell said. "We didn't want them to win on our court, but they played well. They deserved it. They were the best team this year."
Duncan finished with seven points in the fourth quarter, 31 in all and nine rebounds.
"I've got Tim and you don't. That's the difference," Popovich told Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy in the locker room after the game.
Robinson, dismissed for so long as a softie because of his genteel manner and losing history, had 15 points and 12 rebounds.
Jackson added 11 points and Mario Elie 10 for the Spurs, whose season of success ended with 46 victories in their final 53 games and resounding playoff victories over the Timberwolves, Lakers, Trail Blazers and Knicks.
"I don't know if people thought it wouldn't be important for me, but I know how important and special it is," Duncan said. "I'll celebrate as much as I can before I go back to training camp."
As for New York, its quest for its first NBA championship since 1973 ended in disappointment. But at least the Knicks went down with a fight.
Sprewell scored 14 of his career playoff-high 35 points in the fourth quarter as the Knicks were unable to get anything offensively from Allan Houston or Larry Johnson.
Houston finished with 16 points, none in he fourth quarter, and Johnson also failed to score in the fourth and finished with just seven.
Combined with the absence of Patrick Ewing because of his torn Achilles' tendon, the Knicks simply did not have enough to keep pace with a San Antonio team that was too big and too good.
"I felt bad for Patrick," Robinson said. "But really that wasn't our concern. We had to get ourselves together.
"That team is very good, gave us as good a match as any team that played us in the playoffs. That team had some serious fire. They played great and worked their tails off. They don't have anything to hang their heads about."
Sprewell scored New York's first 10 points of the fourth quarter, including a 3-pointer for a 66-63 lead with nine minutes left, while Duncan scored the first six for San Antonio.
A three-point play by Marcus Camby off an assist from Sprewell put New York ahead 71-68 with 6:21 left. A dunk by Camby made it 73-70, and a 3-pointer by Mario Elie tied it at 75-all with 3 1/2 minutes left.
Sprewell hit from the line with 3:12 left to give New York a 77-75 lead, and Duncan made only one of two from the line 39 seconds later when he had a chance to tie it. The Knicks committed a 24-second violation with 1:53 left, Robinson missed a hook shot and Larry Johnson missed a 3-pointer before Avery Johnson hit from the corner to give the Spurs a 78-77 lead with 47 seconds left.
They turned out to be the final points of the game. The Knicks didn't score over the final 3:11.
"Nobody wanted to lose and it really showed," Sprewell said. "I'll bet it was a fun game to watch."
Jackson scored the final three points of the first half and the first five points of the second, then stole the ball from Sprewell, leading to two free throws by Elie that made it 47-38. The Knicks could have quit right there, but instead came right back with a 10-0 run that included five points from Sprewell and four from Houston for a 48-47 lead.
A jumper by Houston completed a 16-3 run and gave the Knicks a 54-50 lead with 2:29 left in the third, but the Spurs scored six of the final eight points of the period to take a 59-58 lead into the fourth.
Camby found himself in early foul trouble again, picking up two personals in the first 3 1/2 minutes, but the Knicks didn't let it hurt them. Sprewell scored on a drive off an offensive rebound to give New York a 21-15 lead, and it was 23-20 entering the second.
A 6-0 run -- a jumper by Kurt Thomas, an inside move by Larry Johnson and a fast break layup by Houston -- put the Knicks ahead 30-22.
The Spurs, behind 16 first-half points from Duncan, steadily chipped away and took a 40-38 lead into the locker room on Jackson's 3-pointer with six seconds left in the half.
Notes: Duncan, a poor free throw shooter when he entered the league, shot 35-for-44 (80 percent) in the series. ... The 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers had the best postseason record in NBA history, 12-1. The 1991 Chicago Bulls also went 15-2 in the postseason. ... The clock above the Spurs' basket malfunctioned in the third quarter, and portable clocks were set up at floor level for the remainder of the game. The clock over the Knicks' basket was turned off, too, so that New York would not have an advantage. ... The Knicks drew their 298th consecutive sellout crowd, a span of six seasons.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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