San Antonio also concentrates on forcing ball handlers to the baseline, where one of the big men will be waiting. That means the Spurs' perimeter defenders don't have to be especially fast to be effective. "Our guys can overplay, knowing that as long as they keep their man out of the lane, they've done their job," Popovich says. "They don't have to make any decisions. They don't have to play anybody straight up. If your guy is quicker than you are, don't worry about it. Just make sure that if you get beat off the dribble, you get beat toward the baseline."
The Knicks found out just how stifling the San Antonio defense can be in the first two games, when they shot only 35.3% from the floor and had 17 of their shots blocked, all but one of them by Duncan or Robinson. Even when the Spurs' big men didn't get their hands on shots, their presence was felt. New York missed more bunnies than a nearsighted hunter, largely because Knicks shooters seemed to be looking for Robinson and Duncan out of the corners of their eyes. "You know they're coming, but you have to avoid hurrying your shot to keep it from being blocked, or you've just done their work for them," Childs said after Game 2. "Unfortunately, that's easier said than done."
With Ewing in civvies, the Knicks didn't expect to get much offensive production inside. It was San Antonio's success in limiting New York's transition game that doomed the Knicks. The Spurs actually outscored them 12-4 in fast-break points in Game 2, and a telling sequence came in the third quarter: Sprewell took off on one of his full-court dashes with only Elie back on defense, or so it seemed. Duncan sprinted into the picture as Sprewell went into the air, and instead of finishing with a floating finger roll or a dunk as he had done so often against Miami, Atlanta and Indiana earlier in the postseason, Sprewell could only bail himself out with a pass toward half-court. The Knicks didn't score on the possession.
New York finally solved the Spurs' defense well enough in Game 3 to slow San Antonio's march through the postseason, at least temporarily. "We have to decide if we just want to avoid a sweep," Van Gundy said on Sunday, "or if we still believe we can win this series." On Monday night the Knicks clearly were leaning toward the latter. They learned that they do have enough firepower to overcome the Spurs' defense, and that if they can keep San Antonio's perimeter scorers in check, Duncan and Robinson alone can't beat them.
Despite the Spurs' stumble, the title was still theirs to lose. After Game 3 the real issue was not whether the Knicks believed they could make it a competitive series, but whether San Antonio would let them.