Are the Spurs getting rattled?
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

It was the best of games. It was the worst of games. For the Nets and their fans, Game 4 was a thriller that wasn't decided until the penultimate shot of San Antonio's final possession. For the Spurs and for basketball purists of every persuasion, it was a tragedy of errors.

Sure, the Nets won the contest, unquestionably the most poorly played of any championship-round game in recent memory. But a case could also be made for the Spurs' losing it -- with the ultimate blame being shared by (gasp!) MVP Tim Duncan, and (say what?) Coach-of-the-Year Gregg Popovich.

What actually happened?

Most obvious reason for the loss: The Spurs stumbled on Wednesday night because they couldn't even shoot themselves in the foot.

What can the Spurs do to rectify this embarrassing situation? Calm down, keep firing away and believe that their individual and collective shooting percentages will find their normal levels in Game 5 and beyond.

Another explanation: Byron Scott finally switched defensive assignments, assigning J-Kidd to Stephen Jackson, and Kerry Kittles to the previously elusive Tony Parker. Aside from Parker being totally discombobulated by the move, there were several other benefits accruing to the Nets: Kidd had sufficient gas in his tank to run isos and post-ups during the end-game. Also, the Spurs were caught in a cross-match, meaning that whenever the home team snatched a defensive rebound and looked to run, neither Jackson nor Parker had time to locate the player whom they were assigned to guard. With the Nets on the verge of fastbreaking, Jackson was forced to try and defend J-Kidd in transition, and Parker was likewise compelled to stick with Kittles.

Tim Duncan
The Spurs can't afford many more sleepless nights.
With a No. 2 guarding the NBA's best point-guard in a broken field, and with Kittles enjoying a considerable size and length advantage over Parker, the Nets running game was (and promises to be) more efficient than in Games 1-3.

What's the Spurs' remedy here? Not much. Have a big man lag for a count in the backcourt to "jam" the Nets' rebounder and hopefully delay the outlet pass. Or, better yet, make more of their shots, thereby creating time and space enough for Jackson and Parker to switch into their preferred defensive matchups.

The most significant reasons for the loss, however, have to do with several basic flaws in Duncan's game. Some of these are fairly obvious: TD's inability, while moving left, to pick up his dribble and execute a precise pass. His lack of a left-handed shot (he works during the summers on a lefty jump hook, but still hasn't mastered it). Occasionally, if his shooting angle is slightly less than 45 degrees (computed from the horizontal plane of the backboard), Duncan is unsure whether to bank his shot or shoot it clean -- the result is an awkward miss that cracks off the glass too close to the hoop. When TD is double-teamed on either box and subsequently passes back out, he sometimes gets too lazy to re-post.

Then there's his erratic free throw shooting. The corrective here is actually simple: Instead of shooting with the toes of both feet equidistant from the line, Duncan should position himself so that his right foot is slightly forward. This would enable him to maintain a proper balance when he dips to shoot (instead of leaning slightly backward as he currently does) and get more loft into his shots.

It should also be noted that another apparent imperfection is, in fact, grossly misunderstood: Despite Duncan's habitually stoic game face, he is actually a very emotional player.

Within the privacy of the post-game locker room, Duncan invariably assumes full responsibility for every Spurs' loss. Nor is this reaction merely a lip-service mea culpa, since no matter how well he might have played, Duncan rarely sleeps the night after his team loses.

Tim Duncan
The double team doesn't sit well with the MVP.
What's behind this? According to teammate Steve Kerr, Duncan is driven by a "fear of failure" and losing resurrects some unhealed psychological scars that still live deep within his psyche.

Oh oh! Should the Nets win the series, the Spurs trainers are advised to hide the tape-cutters and other sharp objects.

In any event, Duncan's most glaring oncourt shortcoming, as evidenced in this series, is his chronic passivity. "TD does have a killer instinct," Kerr insists, "but it's more difficult for a big man to show this. That's because, when he's doubled- and sometimes triple-teamed in the pivot, there's nowhere for him to go. He's taught to just make the safe pass to the nearest perimeter teammate, and then we'll swing the ball looking for an open shot. Compare this with somebody like Michael Jordan, who could go get the ball, and who still had space to move even when he's two-timed."

Given Duncan's necessary limitation, he still needs to be more forceful whenever a game's on the line. "TD accepts the double-teamings much too easily," says Kerr. "He should say, 'Screw it! I'm the MVP!' Then make one quick dribble for either a jumper or a jump hook before the extra defenders arrive. Hell, he's quick and strong enough to split most double-teams and still get off a good shot. TD could help us out a lot more if he was more selfish."

Another fault in the Spurs' game plan is likewise rooted in the psychological makeup of a major participant. Here's a scene that's been repeated numerous times so far in the series (most tellingly at the end of Game 4): Duncan is being defended in the low-post by Dikembe Mutombo, an elderly one-time All-Star whose lateral movement exists only in his own memory. Duncan wants to turn and face Mutombo, knowing that he can easily put up a jumper or execute one swift dribble in either direction and then launch the shot of his choice. But just as Duncan makes his turn, the Nets send another defender at him. Stuck, Duncan has no choice but to force a shot, or else pass to his nearest teammate (who then initiates a series of two, or even three, more swing passes aimed at uncovering an unguarded shooter).

Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich
"Hey Tim, why don't you go in the post again?"
The buzz around the Spurs' locker room after Game 4 expressed the players' dissatisfaction with Popovich's stubbornly keeping Duncan in the low-post. According to several of the Spurs, Duncan should have been positioned at the foul line. From there, he'd still be only one quick dribble away from creating a good look for himself. And should he be two-timed, one pass to either corner would quickly find an unopposed shooter.

Why, then, hasn't this happened thus far? Only because Popovich lacks a certain flexibility in his methodologies, invariably favoring power over finesse.

So, can the Spurs indeed overcome their own formidable yet subtle deficiencies? Or will they "allow" the Nets to keep on winning?

Whatever the answers might be, and no matter how sloppy the games are, an NBA title is at stake, and the human chess-game remains a fascinating process.

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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