Gregg Popovich loosened his tie and leaned back in his Alamodome office chair last Friday night, an hour after the San Antonio Spurs had gone up two games to none over the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals. But despite his body language, Popovich, the San Antonio coach, was anything but relaxed. "[Team owner Peter Holt] came in a few minutes ago and asked me if I was having fun yet," he said. "I told him yes, but I was lying my rear end off."
Popovich wasn't enjoying himself because he was one of the few observers of Game 2 who didn't think it was safe to put in an order for a black-and-silver championship banner. While the fans outside were still chanting for a sweep, Popovich was thinking of the potential hazards that lay ahead. In fact, if the Spurs were to lose Game 3 on Monday night in New York, he felt he knew how it would happen. "If they beat us, it will probably be because a third scorer steps up to help [Allan] Houston and [Latrell] Sprewell, they get their team field goal percentage up around 48, and we get lazy on our transition defense and give them some easy baskets," Popovich said.
Popovich didn't get the specifics quite right, but his uneasy feeling was well-founded. The Knicks revived themselves—and breathed life into a series that threatened to drive more people from their TV sets than a Richard Simmons infomercial—with an 89-81 victory at Madison Square Garden. Although forward Larry Johnson (16 points) did provide scoring support for Houston (34) and Sprewell (24), New York came up with a victory largely because coach Jeff Van Gundy made a strategic shift. He stationed the two Knicks being guarded by Tim Duncan and David Robinson near the three-point arc, drawing the Spurs' 7-footers away from the basket. With neither San Antonio big man clogging the lane, Houston and Sprewell not only found it easier to get inside but were also able to draw fouls on their smaller defenders, combining for 18 points from the line.
In light of how deflated the Knicks had seemed after losing the first two games in San Antonio, their breakthrough was all the more remarkable. The Spurs' intelligent, intimidating defense, the most underrated aspect of their game, had prevented fast-breaking New York from stepping on the accelerator. In the half-court San Antonio had made Houston and Sprewell look like Allen Iverson on a bad night. With Patrick Ewing sidelined, the Knicks had no low-post offense to speak of and little choice but to let their two guards go one-on-one, which they gamely did to no great effect. In the Spurs' 80-67 win in Game 2, Houston and Sprewell combined to out-score Duncan and Robinson 45-41, but the New York guards needed 17 more shots to do it. They also needed hard hats and work gloves to get their points, while San Antonio's twin towers could have scored in white tie and tails.
Even when Houston and Sprewell did loop an acrobatic shot over Duncan or Robinson, or hit a tough fallaway over Mario Elie or Sean Elliott, it was as if they had scored in a vacuum, because their points didn't open up other offensive avenues. On the other hand, the inside success of Duncan and Robinson forced New York to double-team those two even more. That led to opportunities for other Spurs, such as guard Jaren Jackson (five three-pointers in Game 1) and Elie (15 points in Game 2). "It's discouraging," said Knicks point guard Chris Childs after Game 2. "After the first game [an 89-77 San Antonio win], I thought we had made the necessary adjustments and that we would play much better tonight. To come out and have some of the same problems again really makes you think."
The Spurs' defense was a formidable enough obstacle to overcome, but as usual with the Knicks, there was a fair amount of off-the-court intrigue to deal with as well. Sprewell spent a good part of his week denying an SI report that he had told teammates that he won't play for Van Gundy next season and wants to be traded to the Atlanta Hawks if Van Gundy returns. Although both player and coach downplayed reports of friction between them—"If they can't get you on results, they'll get you on relationships," Van Gundy said—there were moments early in the series that could be interpreted as signs of tension. In Game 1, for instance, Van Gundy looked deeply pained when Sprewell went to help on defense and left the hot-shooting Jackson wide open for a trey. Sprewell, in turn, seemed slightly irritated with Van Gundy (though he was, as usual this season, almost Stepford-pleasant with the media) for not pairing him in the backcourt with Houston, a move that could have exploited the Spurs' 5'11" point guard, Avery Johnson. The Knicks worked on the set in practice, but Van Gundy didn't use it in the first two games. "I'd just like to see us try it," Sprewell said after Game 2. "We're in a situation where we need to do something to force them to react to us."
On Monday the Knicks finally gave the Spurs something to react to—San Antonio's first loss after a record 12 straight playoff victories, with Games 4 and 5 scheduled for Wednesday and Friday at Madison Square Garden. But as encouraging as the win was for New York, the Spurs didn't seem terribly rattled, probably because the presence of Duncan, who appeared well on his way to winning the Finals MVP award with averages of 26.0 points and 14.3 rebounds, can do wonders for a team's composure. Whenever the Spurs were in trouble, particularly in the first two games, they turned to Duncan, who consistently went around or over New York's overmatched big men. "We try not to keep leaning on him," Elliott said of Duncan after Game 2, "but he is a little bit of a security blanket."
Aside from Duncan, though, the Spurs didn't dazzle anyone with their offense through the first three games of the series; their D was so good that it didn't matter. When San Antonio drafted Duncan No. 1 out of Wake Forest two years ago, Popovich decided to simplify the team's defensive plans until he had a better idea of how much the rookie could absorb, mentally and physically. At the end of training camp, when it became clear that the chances of Duncan's being overwhelmed in either area were about the same as a summer snowfall in San Antonio, Popovich began to add more wrinkles to the Spurs' scheme. What evolved was a system that limited opponents to 41.1% field goal accuracy in 1997-98, the lowest since 1970-71, which was when the league began keeping the statistic—until San Antonio broke its own record this season by lowering that number to 40.2%.
It's not just the presence of the two 7-foot sentinels that makes the Spurs a brilliant defensive team. In fact, one of the elements that make San Antonio's approach unique is the ability of Robinson, the team's best overall defender, and Duncan to extend their patrol far beyond the lane. In Game 2, for example, Duncan stationed himself near the basket to cut off a baseline drive by Childs, forcing him to dish to Larry Johnson at the top of the key. By the time the pass arrived Duncan had too, denying Johnson what would have been an open three-point shot against most teams. It was the kind of quietly sensational defensive play that leaves no footprint in the box score.
Given the extraordinary luxury of twin intimidators, Popovich designed his defense around a few basic principles. One of them is that most offensive players regard the area between the three-point line and the basket as a kind of limbo. "We believe that players don't make midrange shots anymore," he said after Game 2. "They can shoot threes, and they can go to the hole and be athletic, but hardly anybody wants to stop in the middle these days. So that's exactly what we try to make them do." That's why it's not unusual to see Duncan or Robinson venturing out to put a hand in a potential three-point shooter's face. Each is mobile enough to get there quickly, leaving the other to take care of matters inside.