The San Antonio spurs had suffered a rare playoff loss, to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 4 of their Western Conference semifinals, when a TV reporter approached San Antonio point guard Terry Porter for a locker-room postmortem. The reporter lifted his microphone, a grip fired up a minicam, and Porter raised an eyebrow as well-arched as one of his three-point shots. "Got some unfinished business here," he said, gesturing at his still-to-be-knotted tie and unzipped pants.
Whether parceling out passes or sound bites, the 38-year-old Porter exercises uncommon patience and control. So do his compatriots in the Spurs' backcourt, fellow graybeards Avery Johnson (36) and Steve Kerr (35), and the youngster of the group, Antonio Daniels (26). Just when the NBA playoffs were beginning to morph into a pageant of flashy young individuals, this workmanlike collective of guards forgot to follow the script. They've expertly counterbalanced San Antonio's inside powers, Tim Duncan and David Robinson, and have softened the impact of the right-shoulder separation suffered in Game 1 by Derek Anderson, the team's best backcourt creator. Thus did the Spurs claim a 105-87 victory in the Alamodome on Monday and complete a 4-1 Riverwalk past the Mavericks.
For most of the season Daniels, Johnson, Kerr and Porter have toiled in the shadows of their towering seven-foot teammates, Duncan and Robinson, and of Anderson, with his sorties from the wing. Even if Anderson returns in time to engage the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference finals, L.A. guard Kobe Bryant is sure to outdazzle his counterparts in the San Antonio back-court. Still, the archives of playoffs past tell of many guards who made outsized contributions late in their careers, including Calvin Murphy, who at 32 helped the Houston Rockets take out Magic Johnson's Lakers in a 1981 miniseries, and Maurice Cheeks, who at 33 led the New York Knicks past Larry Bird's Boston Celtics in '90.
Veteran guards are crucial in the postseason, when there's a premium on mental toughness and ball control. "The tempo in the playoffs may feel slower to a Minnesota [ San Antonio's first-round victim] or a Dallas because they're built as offensive machines," says Johnson. "But we're playing the way we've played all season."
On offense, that means not trying to create anything until the big men have had a chance to produce. By halftime of the Spurs' 104-90 victory in Game 3, Duncan and Robinson had each rung up a double double. Small wonder that, for the series, the guards had gotten good enough looks to sink 19 of 44 three-point shots. Still, the San Antonio backcourt receives its greatest boost from those big men on defense. Knowing that Duncan and Robinson are behind them, the guards can jam the three-point arc and funnel ball handlers to the baseline, where opponents are left to the tender mercies of what Kerr calls "14 feet of humanity." That helps explain why the Mavs, 45.9% shooters on the season, shot only 38.4% in the conference semis. At both ends the Spurs go about their business with a Prussian discipline. Says Robinson, "Losing Derek made us even more aware of what we have to do."
No one better knows what to do than Porter. Never mind that he's still hunting for a title despite two trips to the NBA Finals with the Portland Trail Blazers. Brad Greenberg, who was in charge of player personnel during six of Porter's 10 years with the Blazers, calls him "as close to being an X like the X on the blackboard as a coach can ask for." After Johnson suffered a left-thigh contusion in mid-December and his replacement, Daniels, was slowed by a strained right knee in January, the man his teammates call Fossil took over at the point, and San Antonio has gone 40-11 since.
Kerr had to play three-on-three with other reserves after practice to stay in shape for much of this season because he couldn't get off the bench. But he remains the most accurate three-point shooter in NBA history, and his career playoff assists-to-turnover ratio is a staggering 3.7 to 1. After a flagrant foul by the Mavericks' Juwan Howard in Game 1 sidelined Anderson for at least three weeks, Kerr said he'd been working on a distinctly Andersonian move, the windmill dunk. "Yeah," said Spurs forward Sean Elliott. "Then he rolls over and hits the snooze button."
Daniels is the one San Antonio player who can occasionally rival Anderson's moves during waking moments. This season he has become a 40.4% three-point shooter too, which has helped make the team's inside-out style even more effective. Daniels's steep learning curve is due in part to regular mentoring sessions over lunch with Johnson.
If there's an unusual professionalism to the way the four have discharged their committee assignments, it may be because each struggled on his way to the Spurs. Johnson wasn't drafted and got waived by two NBA teams. No Division I school recruited Porter, who played for then NAIA Wisconsin- Stevens Point, and only three pursued Kerr, who landed the last scholarship in Arizona's 1983 recruiting class. The Vancouver Grizzlies, who selected Daniels with the fourth pick in the 1997 draft, gave up on him after a year. More than that, however, each has had to cope with sobering personal loss. Daniels's older brother, Chris, died of cardiac arrhythmia at age 22, while Antonio was still a college junior. Johnson and Porter have lost both parents during their NBA careers. Says Kerr, whose father, Malcolm, was assassinated in Beirut in 1984, "Experiences like that definitely make people mature faster than they would otherwise."
Against the Lakers in the conference finals, the Spurs' guard corps will probably subcontract the task of guarding Bryant to the 6'8" Elliott, while Duncan and Robinson hope two beat one in the post, as they did in a playoff sweep in 1999, the only other time San Antonio has met Shaquille O'Neal-led L.A. in the postseason. Indeed, the Spurs have beaten Los Angeles in 10 of their last 15 meetings. San Antonio's failure to sweep Dallas increased the possibility that Anderson will convalesce in time to face the Lakers in a Game 6 or 7 "Another day helps," Porter said after Saturday's loss. "Not that we were trying to lose a game to get Derek back."