Scouting report: Spurs' fourth-quarter struggles
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

By now, every self-respecting hoophead knows that the Spurs have frequently double-clutched in the clutch. They've frittered away seven significant late-game leads during the playoffs -- and lost five of those games. Yet we were all surprised when the Mavericks overcame a 19-point third-quarter lead in Game 5 and galloped to glory.

Given that the Spurs are more talented than the Phoenix Suns, deeper and more versatile than the Los Angeles Lakers, and better-versed in basketball fundamentals than Dallas, why have they repeated this pattern so often throughout the postseason?

Historically, there are a number of reasons why superior ballclubs (and the Spurs in particular) habitually squander what seem to be insurmountable advantages:

Tony Parker
Tony Parker's emotion sometimes gets the better of him: he was just 3 for 11 shooting in Game 5.

They assume that the game has already been won, and so get careless.

Both Stephen Jackson and Tony Parker are either/or players -- celebrated for making the kind of big plays that can turn a game in their team's favor, while at the same time notorious for taking ill-advised shots, throwing risky passes, committing silly fouls, and generally mishandling the ball in the stretch run. The crucial factor here seems to be the pace of the game at hand. Jackson and Parker are highly susceptible to accelerating their decision-making against up-tempo teams. Since both are youngsters, their lack of discipline is understandable, although not forgivable.

Even though Manu Ginobili is a veteran of high-level European competition, he remains a rookie in the NBA. So here's another neophyte who mostly depends upon his considerable athletic ability to make his mark. Add up all these factors, and it's clear the Spurs' primary ballhandlers have limited experience under pressure.

They commence any given game by playing at a high emotional peak that simply cannot be sustained for 48 minutes.

This, too, is symptomatic of young players.

Opponents make adjustments that rattle the Spurs.

The Mavericks' amoebic 2-3/3-2/1-2-2 matchup zone created hesitation and then paralysis in the Spurs' offense in Game 5. When faced with the same defensive game plan earlier in the series, the Spurs' counter was to move Tim Duncan to the high post and turn Malik Rose loose in the paint. In Game 5, however, Duncan remained planted on one box or the other where he was either denied the ball by the Mavs' prohibitive double-teamings, or even triple-teamed when he did receive an entry pass.

It should be noted that the Mavs' second-half efforts on defense were much faster and more furious than they'd been in the first half.

The Spurs have the wrong combination of players on the court.

Simply put, David Robinson played too much in the fourth quarter Tuesday night. Rose's all-out hustle would have been a better remedy for the Mavs' increased intensity than Robinson's habitual passivity.

The Spurs routinely play full-throttle all game long and can't move up to another level when their opponents gear up for the end-game.

Indeed, this seems to be a chronic problem and bodes ill for the Spurs' chances to overcome teams like Dallas (and New Jersey), who pride themselves on rising to clutch-time situations.

The Spurs lack the killer instinct that marks a champion.

Tim Duncan
Duncan was 5 for 12 from the line in Game 5 and is shooting just 64.6 percent in the series.

The same charge was leveled against the Lakers during their somewhat halting run to the championship in 2000. It remains to be seen if the Spurs are too kindly and good-natured for their own good.

Late-game ineptitude at the free-throw line.

Virtually every NBA player has the physical skills to be at least an adequate free-throw shooter, which means a minimum of 70-percent accuracy. So the problem is mostly mental. The primary difficulty arises when a player has to make the adjustment from the vigorous intensity of full-court action to the relatively passive act of shooting a foul shot. Young players, especially, often just can't slow their bodies or their minds enough to fully concentrate on the task at hand.

Also, poor free-throw shooters are fully aware of their deficiency. Their instinct is to remove themselves from the scene of their failures by shooting too quickly or leaning slightly away from the basket as they release the ball. Or they'll hold on to the ball too long, trying to compensate for their shortcomings by over-concentrating. This, of course, only amps up the pressure.

Consider Tim Duncan, who's worked industriously to boost his free-throw percentage into the low 70's. Duncan is well aware that his career free-throw percentage at Wake Forest was 68.9, with a low mark of 63.6 in his senior year. Furthermore, Duncan cannot so easily forget that in the 2000-01 NBA season, he converted only 61.8 percent of his foul shots.

The point is that, no matter how much they've improved, players who used to be poor free-throw shooters still subconsciously expect to embarrass themselves at the line.

Also, one bricklayer on the team increases the pressure on all of his teammates. To make up for the real and expected misses of Player X, everybody else feels it necessary to shoot 100 percent. The resulting tightness means that even the good shooters are below par. That's why bad free-throw shooting is contagious.

Give the Mavericks credit for their heart, their hustle, and their resourcefulness. Even so, Dallas cannot win the series.

But the Spurs can certainly lose it.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."



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