The most significant field goal attempt in the history of the San Antonio Spurs proved to be the conclusive moment of the 1999 NBA Finals. Fittingly, the momentous occasion featured the man affectionately known as the Little General, whose stature was elevated to epic proportions when his 18-foot baseline jumper with 47 seconds left in Game 5 hit nothing but net.
Avery Johnson had spent a career as the role model of persistence. The 5-11 guard played for five teams and even the Spurs had released him on the day he had been in the wedding of good friend and teammate David Robinson.
But on the final night of the 1998-99 season in a game dominated by players with breathtaking, out-of-this-world skills, it was this diminutive survivor of 11 pro seasons who elevated the Spurs to their first NBA title. The irony was not lost on Johnson, a gregarious man who speaks with machine gun speed in a delightful Cajun accent. When asked to compare the agony of rejection to the thrill of describing a game-winning shot in the NBA Finals, Johnson, as usual, was not at a loss for words.
"It's been an example of just not giving up," he said, "just hanging in there even when you get cut on Christmas Eve by the Nuggets, when the Spurs just cut you on David Robinson's wedding day, after you were in the wedding. It's just unbelievable that I'm sitting up here talking to you guys. I don't know what to say."
By then, of course, he had already said it. Johnson's shot gave the Spurs a 78-77 victory and a 4-1 championship series advantage over the New York Knicks, whose unlikely playoff run finally ended. The Knicks had become the first eighth-seeded team in NBA history to advance to the Finals, defeating Miami, Atlanta and Indiana in earlier rounds. Their run was even more impressive considering they lost center Patrick Ewing, who had a torn Achilles tendon, after two games of the Conference Finals against the Pacers.
But so did the Spurs, who featured the imposing inside tandem of Tim Duncan and Robinson. Duncan's brilliance was hardly a secret. In two years, he had made the All-NBA First Team twice and had finished fifth in MVP balloting as a rookie and third in his second season.
There is something special, however, about performing on Broadway. Duncan had visited New York as a professional only once, and not at all during the shortened 1998-99 season. So the precise level of his excellence was a little bit of a mystery in the media capital of the world. But by the time he was finished winning the Finals MVP award, even hardened Knicks fans had to acknowledge his basketball mastery. In the five games, Duncan averaged 27.4 points, 14.0 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, and 2.4 assists.
While Duncan was methodically dissecting the Knicks, Latrell Sprewell was electrifying New York fans and electrocuting the Spurs. After a season of struggling to find his niche in the New York offense, Sprewell excelled in the playoffs. In the Finals, he found a spectacular comfort zone as he averaged 26 points, nearly 10 more than his regular season average. Liberated to shoot and free-lance after Ewing's season ended, Sprewell was instrumental in converting the Knicks into a transition-oriented, running team. And that change created a unit that was almost the polar opposite of the Spurs inside-based game that revolved around Duncan and Robinson.
Never was the difference more apparent than in Game 5 when Sprewell and Duncan combined for what may well have been the most spectacular five minutes and 49 seconds in NBA Finals history. During that stretch that began with 2:07 left in the third quarter, Duncan and Sprewell scored 28 of the 29 points produced by the two teams. Sprewell had 14 consecutive Knicks points and Duncan countered with 14 of the 15 Spurs' points.
The two dominated in distinctive styles that were as different as Michael Jordan and Bill Russell, and so extraordinary were their respective performances that such comparisons were, for once, not overstated.
Sprewell sometimes controlled the ball from end-to-end and finished plays with an athletic and acrobatic flourish not seen since His Airness departed after the 1998 Finals. Whether it was a fallaway, three-pointer, driving layup or a jumper off a screen, Sprewell displayed a complete game that was pure Jordan.
Duncan had less flash but equal effectiveness as he hit his signature bank shots from 13 and seven feet, scored on a turnaround baseline jumper, executed a dazzling spin move and scored in the lane and threw in one 12-foot jump hook for good measure. He was so precise, fundamentally proficient and dominant on the inside that it was not an exaggeration to describe the performance as Russell-like.
"It was a terrific battle by two terrific players," said Spurs guard Mario Elie after the game. "Spree just was rolling tonight. But man, when you've got a 7-footer shooting 18-foot bank shots -- that's amazing."
Ultimately, with Ewing on the sideline, Duncan and Robinson were simply too strong and too tall for the Knicks. It showed up on both ends of the court. During the final 3:12 of the series, they held the Knicks scoreless. That continued a trend that had begun with the first two games in San Antonio when the Knicks could score only 77 and 67 points, respectively.
"It is fitting because our defense has carried us through the whole year," said Robinson, who enjoyed the victory immensely after 10 years of sporadic criticism about not winning a championship. "This is what we talked about every huddle for the last 10 minutes. Our defense is going to win the game for us. And it really did."
The Spurs and Duncan had opened the series strongly with an 89-77 Game 1 victory. Duncan had 19 points and 10 rebounds by halftime, but that was only part of a chilling message he sent to the Knicks. In the last minute of the first half, Duncan had two rebounds, four points and on the last play of the half, he savagely rejected a Chris Dudley shot to protect an eight-point Spurs lead. San Antonio had trailed by as many as six points in the first half, but it was evident that the Spurs were determined to protect their home court. The Spurs allowed the Knicks only 10 points in the second quarter, which was a record low for the NBA Finals.
Duncan ended the game with 33 points, 16 rebounds and a lot of praise. "He's probably a little young to be a legend yet," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "I'm willing to call him that if you want — if he's going to do it every night."
Two nights later, Duncan did it again — but again, with plenty of support. In Game 1, the boost came from the bench and Jaren Jackson, who had 17 points and was the Spurs' second-leading scorer. Robinson had shot an uncharacteristic 3-of-10 from the floor and had 13 points with nine rebounds and three blocks. In Game 2, however, he was his regular efficient self. Robinson made five of his eight field goal attempts, scored 16 points and collected 11 rebounds. Duncan had 25 points and 15 rebounds, but the most telling statistic was blocks; Robinson had five and Duncan had four. With the intimidation factor in full force, the Knicks managed to make only 32.9 percent of their field goals. They did not score more than 20 points in any one quarter of their 80-67 loss.
"They are a great defensive team," said Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, "and at the basket, they are terrific."
The two teams left San Antonio with Spurs fans chanting "SWEEP," but that was not to be. In Game 3, Knicks fans were treated to a dazzling display of basketball by Allan Houston who schooled the Spurs with a variety of mid-to-long range jumpers. Just as Duncan is a throwback to the days of exceptional footwork and fundamental basketball, Houston is the NBA's prime example that the 15-to-18 foot jump shot is not a lost art. Houston scored 34 points as the Knicks opened with the first five points of the game, and never trailed in an 89-81 victory.
"I hope to be a pain in the neck and unstoppable," Houston said. "If I'm not, that's how I think. And sometimes you're going to have good nights. I just want to be consistent."
Sprewell also was aggressive, charging to the basket with abandon and creating all sorts of havoc for the Spurs defense. Sprewell added 24 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals.
"We attacked the basket," said Sprewell, who combined with Houston to attempt 22 free throws. "We did a much better job on the offensive end, moving that ball, moving their big guys and attacking them."
The Spurs' loss in Game 3 ended a 12-game playoff winning streak, which was an NBA record, and it was also their first loss in 42 days. So they entered Game 4 determined to get back to the form that had made them so successful in San Antonio, which was basically Duncan and Defense.
They were successful on each front. After a series-low 20 points in Game 3, Duncan came back to score 28 in Game 4. Almost as important, he had 18 rebounds, and combined with the 17 gathered by Robinson, the Spurs' Twin Towers outrebounded the entire Knicks team, 35-34. The Spurs' starting five each scored in double figures for the first time during the series. The defense was paced by the inside presence of Robinson and Duncan, who combined for seven of the Spurs' nine blocked shots.
"Size does matter in this league," Van Gundy said of Robinson and Duncan, "particularly in the playoffs. And their size beat our speed and quickness because not only did that affects on the boards and in the post, but every penetration was a difficult, difficult shot because of their shotblocking."
That set up Game 5, which proved to be a wonderfully entertaining game. Ultimately, however, it was left up to Avery Johnson to prove Van Gundy wrong -- at least when one decisive basket was needed. Duncan and Robinson proved that size did matter, but when last field goal of the 1999 NBA Finals went through the basket, there was no doubt that the biggest man on the court was the Little General.