Game 3 brings back lost feeling for Spurs

June 23, 1999|By Mark Whicker | Mark Whicker,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

NEW YORK -- Forty-one days between losses. The San Antonio Spurs like the trend.

"This is a funny feeling," Avery Johnson decided, a few minutes after the Knicks pried a couple of San Antonio fingers off the NBA championship trophy with an 89-81 victory in Game 3 Monday night. "I don't remember the last time we lost."

He also decided it was a good feeling, which may be a side effect of the siege mentality you can develop after three days in New York. Push me, clip my heels, honk at me again. The Spurs had been softened by a civic love-in that has lasted all spring in San Antonio. They had said winning the NBA championship was not supposed to be that easy, but only now do they believe it.

"This is the way it's supposed to be," Johnson said. "Somebody knocks you down and you figure it out and you get back on track. It's not good to lose, but it's good to have to fight for something."

The first two scrimmages in the Alamodome made everyone forget how argumentative the Knicks can be. They squelched Tim Duncan in the fourth quarter and held San Antonio's non-7-footers to 36 points. When the Spurs got Duncan loose in the third quarter and tied New York 58-58, Kurt Thomas sprawled to recover Larry Johnson's miss and flung it out to Allan Houston, whose three-pointer returned the roar to Madison Square Garden. The Knicks were unshakable thereafter.

But the city should not count on much more. If anything, Game 3 showed just how perfectly the dominoes have to fall for the Knicks to win.

Houston, a solid 2-guard in real life, has to become Jerry West. He had no problem with it Monday, scoring 34 in 45 minutes. "I try to be unstoppable every time I'm out there," he said.

Mario Elie has to pick up two fouls and a technical before the first timeout, and his backup, Jaren Jackson, has to get whistled, too. Elie and Jackson played a total of 36 minutes. Houston's festival began shortly after the fouls.

And the Knicks have to find a third scorer. On this occasion, it was Johnson, who is feeling just healthy enough to be out of control. He did, however, score 16, and Latrell Sprewell had 24. Jeff Van Gundy made sure they would sleep well Monday night -- he played Houston 45 minutes, Johnson 43 and Sprewell 46.

"I come back here to my hometown, I get the fouls, I express my opinion and you see what happens," Elie said. "And then they get Allan off early, and he got his rhythm."

"They went to him early," Jackson said of Houston. "They got him his early touches. They weren't experimenting with anybody else out there. They wanted to get him involved from the beginning, and he got better as it went along."

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich made all sorts of veiled complaints about the 27 fouls the Spurs suffered. He kept citing the Knicks' "physical" defense and said the team with the inside attack -- his own -- should have gone to the free-throw line more often.

His real problems are the poor matchups he has with the Knicks' mid-size players. The Spurs really haven't done much with either Sprewell or Houston, and when Johnson arrives and when Marcus Camby at least makes Robinson and Duncan think about the possibility of a blocked shot, this can at times resemble a real basketball series.

The Spurs are now asked to win a series on the basketball court that they've already won several times in public opinion. This is not always an easy thing. Two consecutive sweeps can work against you. For the first time in the playoffs, the Spurs met some people Monday night who have not conceded them their first NBA championship.

"The concentration wasn't as high," Robinson said. "You hear a lot of hype, but I don't think we pay attention to that. Our team hates to lose and takes it personally, so maybe we'll bring more focus and energy Wednesday."

Avery Johnson, the jockey-sized point guard who relentlessly rides his elongated teammates, didn't roll out the usual buzzwords like Robinson did. He was smiling, in fact. He hadn't lost since May 11, an ugly Game 2 stumble at home against Minnesota. The Spurs then went on the road and hammered the Timberwolves twice.

Everything since then had been Lakers and Trail Blazers, lollipops and cookies. Now, Johnson was backed into a corner of a tiny, hot locker room, trying to deal with the third degree. To him, this was finally what the NBA Finals was supposed to be. An ordeal.

"You know, we didn't play well back home, even though we won," Johnson said. "So this is going to be fun, going back and figuring out what we did wrong. And then coming out and finding out how good we can be."

Tonight is when New York finds out.

Pub Date: 6/23/99

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