By Mike Corasaniti
Tim Duncan had the ball, fittingly, but a double team forced him to pass it off to forward Sean Elliot.
Elliot drove toward the basket then kicked it off to point guard Avery Johnson who was waiting on the left baseline. Johnson hit a long jumper to put the Spurs back up over the Knicks 78-77 with less than a minute to play.
What that shot signified was the clinching of the 1999 NBA Finals for the San Antonio Spurs, their first such NBA Championship, but it also signified one of the greatest decade long runs for any team in NBA history. Not to mention one of the most well publicized decade long swoons in league history as well.
Now, more than a decade later, both teams are once again flirting with the top of their conferences* heading into their second matchup of the season at Madison Square Garden.
Tuesday’s contest offers a lot of interesting storylines, like a down low matchup between the Big Fundamental and Tyson Chandler, the defending Defensive Player of the Year, as well as up to between two very different prolific scorers in Carmelo Anthony and Tony Parker. But even more so, Tuesday’s game could have implications to how these two teams match up against each other in the long run, should they meet many months down the road with much more down the line.
How the Spurs get there
San Antonio’s favorite thing in the world is sneaking up on people, no matter how many titles they manage to put under their belt. They’re a cohesive unit, rarely flashy, and are once again primed to return to the Big Show.
And, once again, San Antonio’s title hopes rest upon the shoulders of Tony Parker and Tim Duncan.
At 36 years of age, Tim Duncan is still one of the most consistent and dominant big men in the entire league. If Duncan can continue to average a near triple-double for the rest of the season**, there’s nothing saying that this team doesn’t have what it takes to redeem their Western Conference Finals loss to Oklahoma City and return to the big one.
How the Knicks get there
A few short years ago, the Knicks brought in Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton who helped New York return to playoff form for the first time in (seemingly) any Knicks fan’s memory.
Now, just a few short years later, the team belongs to Carmelo Anthony. And when Carmelo Anthony is averaging nearly 30 points per contest, this is hardly a bad thing. The tough reality for the Knicks lies with the fact that the bulk of their success may lie with those two key players they brought in two years ago.
While Felton doesn’t put up incredible numbers***, for some reason he just works with the cohesive unit of the New York Knicks, setting up plays and parking consistent play when some of the bigger stars on the team are struggling.
As for Stoudemire, it may not be so much of whether or not he plays extremely well for the Knicks the rest of the season, but whether or not his consistent presence in the lineup will hurt the good mojo New York has been able to build up so far this year. It’s no secret that since Melo came to town; the two stars still have not been able to show that they are 100 percent compatible on the floor. They’ll need to prove it if they want to prove themselves worthy of a return to the Finals.
Every inch of me wants to say that the Knicks have what it takes to avenge their NBA Finals loss from before the turn of the millennium.
On their side for proof is the success they have been having this season. The Knicks have beaten the Miami Heat twice this season (comfortably), proving they have what it takes to win the Eastern Conference. They have even proved their toughness against the Spurs themselves, pulling out a 104-100 win at San Antonio in mid-November after being down by as many as 12 in the fourth quarter.
What will continue to be on New York’s side throughout the rest of this season and in this matchup will be their experienced play. Jason Kidd, for example, (who is no stranger to the Spurs in the Finals himself) has been instrumental to the Knicks offense this season, helping to take over and slow things down whenever things get out of New York’s control.
But weighing against the Knicks is the incredible amount of experience on San Antonio’s side. Tim Duncan would be returning to the Finals for his fifth time, and Tony Parker would be itching to grab another Finals MVP.
When it comes down to it, the result of the Finals will come down upon nobody more singularly than Tony Parker, who’s play has defined San Antonio’s success this season****. If the Knicks defense can shut down Parker and the rest of the Spur’s terrifyingly well-balanced offense, then they have the tools to pull it off. But over a seven game series, the Knicks still need to prove that they have the experience to do so.
San Antonio 4-2
*Granted, the Knicks made the ’99 Finals as the No. 8 seed.
**Duncan’s stats as of January 3, 18.0 PPG, 9.8 RPG
***Felton’s stats as of January 3, 15.8 PPG, 6.3 APG
****In San Antonio wins, Parker averages 20.6 PPG; in losses, just 14.9.