Spurs shake off Knicks, close on NBA title, 96-89

Duncan, Robinson rise to occasion as S.A. takes 3-1 series lead


NEW YORK -- After the San Antonio Spurs' 12-game playoff winning streak ended Monday night, David Robinson wasn't ready to panic. The reason: Robinson said his team had a history of responding well to losses.

The Spurs proved him a prophet last night as their twin towers of Robinson and Tim Duncan came through big, leading San Antonio to a 96-89 win in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

With the victory, the Spurs took a commanding, 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series and can win the first championship in franchise history -- and become the first former ABA team to win an NBA crown -- with a victory at Madison Square Garden tomorrow night.

"One more, right where we want to be," said Spurs reserve guard Steve Kerr, on the verge of winning his fourth straight NBA ring. "That last one is the toughest. Certainly, we shouldn't celebrate yet."

But the celebration is soon to come. It can't be avoided the way Duncan and Robinson have dominated inside during the series. Last night, Duncan, who was scoreless in the fourth quarter of the Game 3 loss, had 28 points, 18 rebounds and three blocks. Robinson had 14 points, 17 rebounds and four blocks.

"Size does matter in this league, particularly in the playoffs," said Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy. "Their size beat our speed and quickness. Those guys are great, great players."

Still, this was more than a two-man game for the Spurs, as five players scored in double figures against an unusually generous New York defense. Mario Elie scored 18 points, and Sean Elliott and Avery Johnson had 14 each.

Johnson's play was huge, as he did a great job penetrating the lane and either scoring with his running left-handed hook, or setting up open teammates. Johnson, a nonfactor in the series before last night, also had 10 assists.

"Avery took it upon himself to be aggressive, not settle for outside shots," Elie said. "He got some layups and that really got it going for us."

Johnson wanted no part of a letdown against New York and the prospect of playing a Game 5 here tied at two games each. So that's why he gathered his team together before the game, to provide a pep talk.

"He said, `There's no laughing or joking now, stay focused,' " Elie said. "He told us to be serious, that we're here to do a job and not enjoy New York."

It was enjoyable for San Antonio last night mainly because the Spurs did a better job of containing New York guard Allan Houston. In Game 3, Houston erupted for 34 points, hitting one big shot after another. Last night, he finished with a hard-earned 20. He faced double teams nearly every time he touched the ball.

"He made the right decisions in kicking it out," said Van Gundy, when asked what was wrong with Houston. "Offense was not the problem for us. We got crushed on the boards, and we didn't guard them as well as we needed to."

The numbers proved Van Gundy's point. The Knicks were out-rebounded 49-34 overall -- including 14-10 on the offensive end -- and 35-34 by Duncan and Robinson alone.

For the Knicks, Larry Johnson struggled (five points in 36 minutes), but Latrell Sprewell had 26 points, Marcus Camby 20 points and 13 rebounds and Charlie Ward 11 points (though only one after the first quarter).

The points didn't come when New York needed them most. After a free throw by Johnson brought New York within 86-84 with 3: 40 left, the Knicks seemed primed to fully recover from a 13-point deficit. But they missed their next eight field-goal attempts, dooming their chances of getting back in the series.

"We didn't execute well down the stretch," said Sprewell, who along with Ward and Houston played every minute of the second half. "We were stuck on 84 for what seemed like the longest time. They were able to get buckets and we weren't. We didn't get the job done."

The result is that the Knicks are faced with accomplishing what no team has done before -- rallying from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals. In the 2-3-2 Finals format, no team has won the middle three games on its home court.

"We feel now we win a game at home, win a game on the road and we're in an ultimate Game 7," Houston said. "That's how we have to look at it -- one game at a time. This is it, the ultimate challenge. Our backs can't get any further to the wall. We're looking forward to the challenge."

NBA Finals

San Antonio vs. New York (San Ant. leads series 3-1)

Game 1: S.A. 89, N.Y. 77

Game 2: S.A. 80, N.Y. 67

Game 3: N.Y. 89, S.A. 81

Last night: S.A. 96, N.Y. 89

Tomorrow: at New York, 9

Sunday: at San Ant., 7: 30*

Tuesday: at San Antonio, 9* *-If necessary

TV: Chs. 11, 4

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