It's hard to decide which was more surprising: that the Spurs, facing playoff elimination in the Western Conference semifinals last Thursday, lost a deciding Game 6 to the Jazz by 27 points or that after the blowout San Antonio's All-Star center (Saint) David Robinson, who was plagued by foul trouble all night, criticized official Steve Javie—and used mildly off-color language to do it.
"I'm really pissed off about tonight because I think Steve Javie has brought this personal crap to the game all year long," said Robinson, whom Javie ejected from a game on March 2. "I think tonight was just garbage. I thought that third call [ Robinson's third personal, an offensive foul called with just 14 seconds gone in the second quarter] was garbage. I don't appreciate that. I think that was personal."
Just as in 1995, when the Rockets knocked the higher-seeded Spurs out of the playoffs in the conference finals, San Antonio rendered a splendid regular season (59-23) meaningless with an anemic showing in the postseason. Robinson & Co. have long been criticized for being too soft because they are routinely outmuscled by opponents. After the series against the Jazz, the Spurs' mental toughness came into question as well.
"We all know there's a difference between the playoffs and the regular season," says San Antonio general manager Gregg Popovich, "but there's absolutely no reason for a team that won 59 games to lose three games [in the series against Utah] by an average of 26 points. It's humiliating. And it's unacceptable. I'm dumbfounded by that. It requires some tough questions that can't be swept under the rug."
Asked what specifically he had in mind, Popovich replied, "If I know what's good for me, I won't answer that now. I'll meet with the coaches and the players first. But I'll tell you one thing: You can't chalk this up as a growing process. That's total bull."
San Antonio's early exit does not help the case of Spurs coach Bob Hill, who has a year remaining on his contract. Hill was hoping to negotiate an extension this summer, but that won't happen now. Popovich has always publicly supported Hill, yet observers have long noted their contrasting styles—Popovich is blue-collar, Hill is white-tab collar—and were wondering aloud again last week how much longer the two can peacefully coexist.
On the court, even if Popovich wants to shake things up, his hands are tied by the salary cap. He has committed an average of $13.6 million a season through 1999-2000 to Robinson and $5.2 million per through 2000-2001 to All-Star forward Sean Elliott. Add forward Charles Smith, whose salary will tie up an average of $4.1 million a season through 1999-2000, and there's not much loose change rattling around the Alamodome.
Karl: A Year Off?
When the Sonics lost Game 2 of their Western Conference opening-round playoff series at home to the Kings, the silence in Seattle was deafening. Was Seattle, which was shocked in the first round by the Nuggets two years ago and the Lakers last year, headed for another quick fold? Had the floor fallen from beneath coach George Karl?
Then the Sonics ran oil six straight wins over Sacramento and Houston, and now that they are in the Western Conference finals, Karl's popularity is soaring. Last week Seattle finally picked up the option on his partially guaranteed contract for next season. Sonics president and general manager Wally Walker says he plans to sit down with Karl this summer and talk about a contract extension, but it might be a tough sell. Those close to Karl say he's convinced that Seattle's ownership was clandestinely discussing potential successors as recently as three weeks ago (which the Sonics deny), and that unless the Sonics' offer is an impressive one—including big money and lots of security—he'll seriously consider taking a year off from basketball.