May 3, 2002 (column #x)
One More Time . . .
After two weeks, four games, a nearly-unbearable amount of overanalysis eminating from my keyboard, several injuries on both sides, and the untimely passing of Tim Duncan's father, we are left with this.
One game, 48 minutes, to determine which of these two teams will fly to Los Angeles for a date Sunday on NBC against the Lakers, and which will head home to begin a summer that will surely be filled with thoughts of what might have been.
Though they fought valiantly, the San Antonio Spurs were ultimately unable to overcome the loss of Duncan and David Robinson that was ultimately exacerbated by the ejection of Mark Bryant and an injury to Charles Smith. In the first half, the Spurs were overmatched. After a quick start to the game, perhaps fueled by the emotions surrounding Duncan's absence, they led early. But once the Seattle Supersonics weathered the storm, they proceeded to keep San Antonio at bay offensively. Through the first six minutes of the second quarter, the Spurs made just one field goal as the Sonics ran out to a large lead.
Offensively, two Sonics in particular shouldered the load. That Gary Payton would dominate was not a major surprise, especially after he had been subjected to several days of hearing how he had struggled in his matchup with Spurs rookie Tony Parker. It was only predictable, then, that he respond with an impressive performance. And that's exactly what he did, ripping off his second-career playoff triple-double with 28 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists. Meanwhile, Parker, missing his 7-1 security blanket, shot six for 18, though he still scored 14 points.
The surprising Seattle star was rookie Vladimir Radmanovic, who had done little during a series in which he was plagued by the lingering effects of a sprained toe. On Saturday, during game three, Radmanovic looked like he was too injured to play any role in this series. But apparently the best tonic for an injury is a starting role, which Radmanovic inherited from an injured Rashard Lewis. Radmanovic had a huge first half which served as a coming-out party in front of a national television audience. Beginning with a fast-break dunk, Radmanovic made all seven of his first-half attempts, including five rainbow threes, each a dagger to the heart of the Spurs. He finished with 23 points in the game, a new career-high.
It could not have come at a better time for the Sonics, in need of an offensive threat with Lewis injured and Brent Barry continuing to struggle. Let's talk a little about Barry, shall we?
As this series draws near to a close, Brent Barry's struggles have not only not come to an end, they have gotten worse. During game four, he scored three points on one of three from the field. If Barry were simpling struggling with his shot, or looked a step slow, that would be one thing. But he seems to be rattled right now, and while I think Barry's slump predates the effect of Bruce Bowen's aggressive and physical defense on Barry, I think this tentativeness is definitely due to Bowen. Throughout this series, Barry has been making silly, rookie (well, not Parker) turnovers and been careless with the ball. Last night, he was hesitant to shoot. On one notable sequence, he got the ball with a decent look with the sthot clock running down. Instead of firing, he upfaked -- nearly travelling -- and threw a desperation pass to a teammate at the top of the key, who badly missed as the clock expired. If Barry struggles tomorrow evening, it is my opinion that Nate McMillan must not be hesitant to remove him from the game. Much as I have come to love 'Bones', if he is either missing repeatedly, as in game three, or merely a decoy, as in game four, he is not an asset to the team. With their other skills, especially on the defensive end, Randy Livingston and Ansu Sesay bring more to the table than Barry.
Back to game four.
Near the end of the first half, Radmanovic made two consecutive threes with Payton following up with one of his own for an instant 9-0 run that capped a half that ended with them ahead 26 points. By that point, the game was over, for all intents and purposes.
In the second half, the Sonics played like it. San Antonio did not, emerging from the locker room after a lengthy halftime speech from Gregg Popovich (well, I'm assuming it was a long halftime speech; they sure didn't re-take the floor until late into halftime) with energy recharged. 26 points ultimately proved far too large a deficit to overcome, but the Spurs managed to put a bit of a scare into the Sonics and their fans.
The key player was Malik Rose, who provided a strong interior threat for San Antonio in the absence of both Robinson and Duncan. Using his size against smaller defenders and quickness against larger ones, Rose dominated during the second half, going to the free-throw line 13 times and making 12. He finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds.
On the other end, with the exception of Payton, the Sonics were largely stymied. Radmanovic barely got a chance to shoot after halftime, curious given how hot he was in the first half. Mason stepped up to become a larger part of the offense, but his success was questionable. The Spurs made a habit of greeting Mason forcefully when he drove the lane, resulting in 10 second half free-throw attempts. However, the policy appeared to be successfully in somewhat rattling Mason -- the normally automatic free-throw shooter made only five of his 10 tries. In the fourth quarter, however, Mason began needlessly dominating the ball at a time when it should have been in the hands of Payton, resulting in two straight misses and allowing the Spurs a chance to cut the lead to single-fingers inside the final two minutes if Steve Smith, who failed to step up in the absence of Duncan and Robinson, could have made an open fast-break three attempt.
For the second straight game, a significant strategical concern for the Sonics was their strategy of switching on virtually any pick. It allowed Rose to exploit the same mismatches that Duncan had used for many of his game three points; though at a listed 6-7 (and apparently closer to 6-5) Rose does not have the size advantage that Duncan holds, he has a significant girth advantage. It is a strategy that I hope -- and expect -- will be revisited prior to game five.
The second half was not all positive for San Antonio, however. They lost a pair of players. First, Mark Bryant, who started at center in place of Duncan, was involved in a scuffle with Desmond Mason and ejected. Worse still, reserve swingman Charles Smith was injured during the second half when he flew over the back of a Seattle player attempting to box out and caromed to the ground, landing hard on his back and lying motionless on the ground for over a minute before heading off to the locker room with a slightly separated shoulder.
Now back to San Antonio for a deciding game five; it is the fourth consecutive first-round series for the Sonics that has ended in a game five. And the night's big news is this: ESPN.com is currently reporting that not only Duncan, but also Robinson will be back tomorrow night. Duncan's return comes as little surprise to me, as I expected him to play, but I must say that I was caught off guard by the news of Robinson's return.
The vague comments on his health by Coach Popovich had me convinced that Robinson's situation was far more serious than was being let on, and that he might indeed miss the entire playoffs. And suddenly he's back? I drift here into pure idle speculation, but I wonder if this might not be indicative of a little big of panic on the part of the San Antonio Spurs. This is an unfamiliar position for them to be in; they have not played a game five under Popovich or even with Robinson on the roster. Would it be so surprising that they be a little less cautious with Robinson's injury in that situation? Not to me.
Whether Robinson can contribute or not remains in doubt to me. This may be a case like game one, where he attempts to give it a go but does not last the entire game. On the other hand, the adrenaline may kick in once Robinson hears the cheers of the crowd and he might not experience any problems the rest of the game, similar to Lewis early in the series.
About Duncan's play, however, I have no questions. He is clearly one of the NBA's most consistent players and, again, should be able to feed off what is sure to be a raucously loud crowd in the Alamadome. If Duncan were anywhere below 25 points and 10 rebounds, I would be quite surprised.
On the other side, Payton will clearly carry the load again. But he needs at least one other player from the starting lineup of Barry, Radmanovic, Mason, and Vin Baker -- who began the series so well but has had consecutive mediocre games -- to step up and help him offensively with at least 20 points. That will be difficult against a San Antonio defense that will certainly have its defensive intensity ratcheted up to the highest level and now has not one but two shot blockers.
As a fan, I'm happy just to see the Sonics take this series to a game five -- even if, perhaps, it took the unfortunate death of Mr. Duncan to have that happen -- but they cannot be similarly content. With the proverbial 'no tomorrow', the Sonics have to bring their best effort of the season onto the court tomorrow. There is nothing to save it for.
San Antonio by 12.