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1999 NBA Playoffs

Super Mario

As usual, Elie provides spark for Spurs in Game 1

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Posted: Sunday May 30, 1999 05:58 PM

  Key to the ring? Mario Elie has brought a new brand of tenacity to the notoriously soft Spurs. AP

SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- For all the talk about Tim Duncan and David Robinson, Mario Elie probably has done as much as any player to transform the San Antonio Spurs from a good team to a title contender.

He's a tough defender, he's played on two NBA championship teams in Houston and, most of all, he's brought an attitude to a team that needed one.

Elie was a major factor in holding down Isaiah Rider in San Antonio's 80-76 victory over Portland Saturday in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, and he had a crucial drive to the basket, as well as two important free throws down the stretch.

With the experience that comes from nine previous playoff appearances, he keeps his team from ever becoming complacent.

Game 2 on Monday night, he tells his teammates, "will be the toughest game of the series."

"No. 1, he stays angry," Avery Johnson said. "He's one of the angriest guys on the court. On the court, he has an edge, he's bitter about a lot of things. He stays mad all the time and we kind of needed that little edge."

Coach Gregg Popovich used the same word when describing Elie's importance.

"He adds an edge to your team. He really helps you create a personality, a toughness," Popovich said. "He's somebody who doesn't accept losing. If we lose a game, he doesn't want to talk any of us. We're all bums, and that's kind of good."

Johnson said it's no coincidence San Antonio got rolling after a 6-8 start when Elie's role grew.

"We finally got Mario into the rotation," Johnson said, "and we took off from there."

Elie saw a blandness on his new team after he signed with a Spurs as a free agent before this season began.

"I thought at first when I got here that we were sort of a corporate team, just punch in and have no fun," he said.

For Elie, who had to claw his way up to the NBA by playing in Europe and the Continental Basketball Association, there was no excuse for just going through the motions. "We had a lot of laid-back guys, and that's just not my personality," he said. "I just try to bring some fun, excitement, some chest bumping, some high-fiving, just having fun and enjoying the game. It seems like now our guys are showing a lot of emotion."

They will need it Monday against a Blazer team that remains confident even though it has lost four of five from San Antonio this season, a confidence that comes from playing the Spurs close in each loss.

Rider, who came to practice at the Alamodome on Sunday wearing a straw cowboy hat that looked as if somebody bit a hole in the brim, noted that Portland lost by just four points Saturday despite a sub-par performance by almost everyone on the team except Rasheed Wallace.

"What's so funny is we're still confident we can beat this team," Rider said. "We haven't played well at all against this team, not for 48 minutes. We feel if we play good, we'll be fine."

Wallace, whose size, long arms, jumping ability and quickness create a serious matchup problem for San Antonio, scored a career playoff-high 28 points in Game 1, but no other Blazer managed more than Rider's 13.

Portland also committed 16 turnovers, twice as many as the Spurs.

"For us to have a chance to win, we need other guys to step up and have good games also," Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy said. "That's the good thing about our team. They could be over there worrying about Rasheed all day long and it's not Rasheed tomorrow, its somebody else. That's been the strength of our team all year long. You don't necessarily know who to prepare for, who it can be on any night."

The Spurs didn't think much of their game Saturday, either. They believe they relied too much on Duncan and Robinson, who scored 21 points apiece.

"Basically, we've got to shoot the ball better," Robinson said. "We shoot 40 percent it's going to be tough for us to put together a good game."

Still, San Antonio was good enough for its sixth straight win in the playoffs. Three more, and the Spurs have their first trip to the NBA finals.

"We had five days off. We weren't really in-synch the way we should have been," Johnson said. "But whether you win ugly, whether you win pretty, it really doesn't matter during this time of the year, as long as you win."

 
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