Garden Variety Shootout
In Game 5 of the 1999 Finals in Madison Square Garden, San Antonio’s Tim Duncan and New York’s Latrell Sprewell staged an all-out shootout. Sprewell won the battle, but Duncan won the war
One goes about his business with a cool efficiency, a placid demeanor that belies the passion to win smoldering inside. The other wears his emotions on his sleeve, or rather the shoulder strap of his jersey, but that same passion to succeed is readily apparent to all.
Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs and Latrell Sprewell of the New York Knicks, two contrasting players and personalities, staged one of the most exciting duels in NBA Finals history in the second half of Game 5 seven years ago. Though Sprewell outscored Duncan 25-15 in the half and 35-31 for the game, it was Duncan’s taller, deeper Spurs who emerged victorious, 78-77, to wrap up the 1999 NBA championship, the only one ever won by a former ABA team.
“It was a terrific battle by two terrific players,” said Mario Elie, who won two rings with the Houston Rockets before earning his third as a starting guard with the Spurs. “Spree was just rolling, but man, when you’ve got a 7-footer shooting 18-foot bank shots, that’s amazing. He’s a phenomenal talent.”
With Patrick Ewing sidelined by a partially torn Achilles tendon, the Knicks could not contain Duncan, the second-year star who scored 15 of his team’s final 28 points. “He took over the game going down the stretch,” said Jerome Kersey, a Spurs reserve who finally won a ring in his 15th NBA season. “He did everything out there for us.”
At the other end, however, the Spurs had their hands full contending with the slithering moves of the 6-5 Sprewell, who slashed and drove for 25 of his team’s last 34 points only to see his final attempt, a desperate off-balance shot from the baseline while double-teamed, fall short at the buzzer.
“Spree was awesome,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “He got on one of those rolls where it didn’t matter if you got on him, off him – he’s going to figure out a way to get it in the hole. When he gets on one of those kinds of rolls, you just know it’s going to be scary. He gets into his zone.”
Doug Collins, former NBA coach and NBC broadcaster at the time, put it another way. “This guy is unbelievable,” he said during Sprewell’s spree. “When he gets on one of his rolls, he might hit six in a row. If you touched him right now, he would shock you with all the electricity that’s running through his body.”
The duel occurred in a game that would become a milestone for both players. For Tim Duncan, it completed a dream, wrapped up an NBA championship and ratified him as among the best in his business. For Latrell Sprewell, whose career had roller-coastered from All-Star heights to despairing lows, it was a major step on the road back.
“Prior to coming to New York, Sprewell always was the leader of his team, the go-to guy. When he got here, he had to share those responsibilities,” observed former Knicks assistant coach Don Chaney. “That could have been a pivotal game for him in saying, ‘OK, this team also requires me to make big baskets and, from time to time, to carry it.’ I thought from that point on, and (that) year especially, he’s been carrying the team quite a bit late in games. He’s been stepping up, hitting big baskets, making big plays. That could have been the step-off point for him, to where he got back to who he really is in terms of being a leader and being the guy who can carry a team.”
Winning the championship was the culmination of a fantasy season for Duncan. He ranked among the league leaders in scoring (21.7 points per game, sixth), rebounding (11.4 rebounds per game, fifth), shotblocking (2.52 blocks per game, seventh) and field goal percentage (.495, tied for eighth), captured MVP honors for the Finals and earned a championship ring – all in only his second NBA campaign.
But Duncan has more than talent. He also has the intangible qualities of leadership, exuding a quiet confidence that makes his teammates believe in him.
“Those are personal qualities; some have it and some don’t,” said Popovich. “Magic had it. Larry had it. Isiah had it. Obviously, Michael. They have a composure about themselves and an understanding of the game, a security in the game where they know where people are on the court, they know the time on the clock, they know the situation, they know when to take over. That’s a personal ability, to have that kind of demeanor, that kind of poise, that kind of understanding. Tim just has that.”
Meanwhile, in defeat, Sprewell’s performance capped a remarkable comeback for a player who had been a three-time All-Star with Golden State but whose very career was in jeopardy following his altercation with then-Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo early in the 1997-98 season. Following his suspension, Sprewell was traded to the Knicks in 1999 and won over the often-critical Madison Square Garden fans, who responded to his intensity and cheered him on in his Game 5 duel against Duncan.
“The crowd, they were great, like they’ve been all year long,” said Sprewell, who boosted his scoring average from 16.4 points in the regular season to 20.4 points in the playoffs and 26.0 points in the Finals. “They’ve been very supportive of the organization and of myself, personally.”
“Latrell had it rolling in the second half, so we went to him,” said former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, now heading the Houston Rockets. “I’d watched him handle adversity, coming here, fighting injuries. He didn’t have to answer any questions for me. I think what he did, that whole playoff run, was re-establish himself as one of the great players in our league.”
But the NBA is a league where size matter, and the Knicks’ big man, Ewing, was out for the Finals, leaving the rail-thin Marcus Camby, the offensively challenged Chris Dudley and forwards Kurt Thomas (6-9) and Larry Johnson (6-7) to contend with the Spurs’ Twin Towers of Duncan and David Robinson.
It was a mismatch from the start, with Duncan scoring the first basket of the Finals over Dudley as the Spurs, who had bounced back from a 6-8 start to finish the shortened 1999 season with a league-bets 37-13 record, won the opening two games of the championship series at home. They dropped Game 3 in New York, but then took Game 4 to set up the chance to wrap it up at Madison Square Garden.
But the Knicks, and Sprewell in particular, didn’t make it easy for them. New York led by as many as eight points in the first half before San Antonio reeled off 13 straight in a span of 4:16 of the second and third quarter to go up by nine. But the Knicks fought back, getting a free throw from Johnson and a pair of baskets from Allan Houston to make it 47-43.
That’s when the shootout between Duncan and Sprewell began, with Spree hitting a driving dunk for a three-point play with 5:33 left in the third and following with two jumpers, giving him seven consecutive New York points in 1:38 to pull the Knicks even at 50-50.
After baskets by Charlie Ward and Houston gave New York a four-point lead and capped a 16-3 run, it was Duncan’s turn to take command. He started with a turnaround jumper from the right box over Thomas, with the free throw making it a three-point play. After Sprewell answered with a turnaround jumper of his own, Duncan knocked down a bank shot from 13 feet out on the left side, then drew a foul from Thomas and converted both free throws. Again Sprewell responded, this time with a short pull-up jumper, but a free throw by Malik Rose for San Antonio tied the score, and a free throw by Duncan gave the Spurs a 59-58 edge going into the fourth quarter.
Duncan had scored eight of San Antonio’s last nine points while Sprewell had netted 11 of New York’s last 15. And they were far from finished. The start of the fourth quarter saw them slug it out like heavyweights in the latter rounds of a title fight.
In the opening minute, Duncan rejected a driving layup attempt by Sprewell, who recovered the loose ball but then lost it to Rose. That set up a spinning turnaround jumper off the glass by Duncan over two defenders, making it 61-58. Sprewell answered with a layup off a feed from Chris Childs, and after Johnson picked off an errant pass by Duncan, Spree scored over Rose from the left side on an isolation play, was fouled and sank the free throw for a 63-61 lead.
Back and forth they went:
Duncan posted up on the right side and tied the score with a 12-foot hook shot over Dudley at 10:01.
Sprewell sank a three-point field goal from the top of the key at 9:00.
Duncan scored on a layup at 8:42.
Sprewell again put New York up by three with a 10-footer at 8:18.
Duncan now had scored 14 of San Antonio’s last 15 points, including the first six of the fourth quarter, while Sprewell had accounted for 21 of New York’s last 25 points, including the first 10 of the final period.
Basketball being a team game, however, it was time for teammates to step up. Robinson scored five of San Antonio’s next seven points and Camby had all of New York’s next five points as the Knicks’ lead was reduced to one. Sprewell canned a 17-foot jumper to make it 75-72 with 3:58 to play, only to have Elie tie the score with a big three-pointer off a feed from Duncan with 3:36 left.
Two free throws by Sprewell put New York in front again, but Duncan halved the lead by making one of two at the 2:33 mark. Neither team would score again until Avery Johnson nailed an 18-footer from the right side to make it 78-77 San Antonio with 47 seconds to play. After Sprewell missed a 15-footer, Robinson missed a layup, got his own rebound, then Johnson missed a three-pointer before the Knicks regained possession with only 2.1 seconds on the clock.
Ward, inbounding from midcourt, lobbed the ball to Sprewell, who was pinned under the basket by Duncan and Elliott. Spree tried to squirm out the right side, dribbling once before tossing up a desperation shot over the outstretched arms of the Twin Towers. It cleared the fingertips but came down short of the rim as the buzzer sounded and the Spurs were champions.
Characteristically, when the game and series were over, both Duncan and Sprewell downplayed their duel and looked at the end result.
“It’s all for nothing,” a dejected Sprewell said moments after the final horn sounded. “I felt really good out there, shot the ball really well. But I would rather have two points and the victory.”
When asked about his play down the stretch, Duncan said only, “It’s a great feeling, for the team and coach to have such confidence in you to give you the ball in that situation.” Then he moved on to the bigger picture. “I know the importance of this. It’s a blessing to do what we did this year. There are no guarantees I’ll ever get back. I know how special it is.”
Van Gundy, a coach who is the son of a coach, recognized the special qualities in Duncan. “He’s obviously the best player in the NBA, not just because of his skill level but his maturity and knowledge of the game and that he cares just about winning. You can just watch a guy play and know if he’s truly into winning or not. That guy’s truly into winning.”
And while his Knicks lost, Van Gundy had a guy who did all he could do to win, too.
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