The Nets' reserve corps has one thing the Spurs' does not—a genuine folk hero in the 6'9" person of Brian (Veal) Scalabrine, whose infrequent entrances usually produce an ovation from the home crowd. Otherwise, the New Jersey bench, which may offer as few as three real contributors during the Finals, pales in comparison with San Antonio's.
The X factor for the Nets is Lucious Harris, a streak-shooting guard who defends tenaciously and, most important, brings a warrior mentality. But his opposite number, the Spurs' 6'6" rookie Manu Ginobili, is as feisty as Harris and a better player. Coach Gregg Popovich still frets about Ginobili's penchant for forcing shots and passes, but his energy and athleticism will be needed to a) stymie the Nets' transition game; b) give backcourt starters Tony Parker and Stephen Jackson and small forward Bruce Bowen a break from guarding Jason Kidd; and c) create half-court activity when Duncan is multiteamed.
New Jersey's Rodney Rogers can launch three-point shots better than just about any broad-shouldered power forward in recent memory. But undersized Malik Rose, San Antonio's top frontcourt reserve, more than counters Rogers's outside game with his aggressive post-up moves and his offensive rebounding. The Spurs don't have a perfect answer for 6'9" Aaron Williams, a quiet and undervalued frontcourt-man who chases every loose ball, rebounds diligently and hits the midrange jumper if teams slough off him. But look for 40-year-old Kevin Willis, one of several Spurs graybeards, to collect some hard fouls and toss a few elbows in what will probably be his final shot at a championship.
The Nets have counted on one other bench player for brief stretches—Anthony Johnson, the backup point guard who sometimes gets New Jersey out of its offense by launching ill-advised jumpers. San Antonio, on the other hand, has a steady backup backup at that position in 37-year-old Steve Kerr, who dashed into a phone booth, slipped into a cape and three-point-bombed the Mavericks out of Game 6 of the Western finals. Popovich says he has no plans to give Kerr significant minutes against New Jersey, but here's betting that he changes his mind. Speedy Claxton, Parker's principal backup at point guard, will also be needed: He's a transition player, and this could be a transition series.
The most interesting bench question for the Nets is whether they will hire a crane to hoist up the creaky 36-year-old body of Dikembe Mutombo, a four-time defensive player of the year who was sidelined most of the season with a torn ligament in his right wrist and has been little more than a 7'2" ornament on the New Jersey bench during the playoffs. "The Nets have to be tempted to use Mutombo to harass Duncan," said one NBA scout, "but he's too much of a liability on offense unless they think they can play in the half-court with four guys." Against a team as complete as the Spurs, that wouldn't be a good idea.