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Wednesday, June 4, 2003
Updated: May 31, 2:18 PM ET
A series you can't afford to miss

By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

All right, I can't resist it ...

BOWEN!!! KITTLES!!! It's the NBA Finals on ABC!!!!

Or how about this one ...

JACKSON!!! JEFFERSON!!! It's the NBA Finals on ABC!!!!

Shakira
Like Shakira, the 2003 NBA Finals should have plenty of aesthetic value.
Let there be no doubt: A Spurs-Nets series was a worst-case scenario for ABC, coming on the heels of a fourth-place finish for the 2003 ratings season. (Although I never understood how Fox could finish third when the network doesn't run anything from 10-11 p.m. every night. Shouldn't that count as a "0.0" for Fox, like when you fail a class in college? Does this bother anyone else?)

Anyway, when ABC acquired the Finals last summer, it was probably counting on Shaq and Kobe every June for the next five years, never imagining the prospect of selling a Finals with Tim Duncan and Jason Kidd. Their skills simply don't translate to a broader prime-time audience -- somebody like my Mom would never appreciate something like Duncan's footwork around the basket, or Kidd's unparalleled ability to go coast-to-coast.

Getting this message across to casual fans is like trying to explain to your girlfriend why Shakira is 10 times sexier than Reese Witherspoon. You just can't win.

And since Duncan and Kidd graduated Summa Cum Laude from the Pete Sampras School of Charisma, this series could bomb from a ratings standpoint like nothing we've seen since the Bullets and Sonics battled in obscurity 25 years ago. At least when the Knicks and Rockets were having that legendary seven-game rock fight in '94, there was a New York team involved for ratings purposes, Hakeem was in his absolute prime, and O.J. had the good sense to hop in his Bronco with AC and drive around during one of the games. I always thought if O.J. had killed himself that night, we never would have known if he did it because he was guilty of killing his wife, or because he couldn't stand to watch another Knicks' 3-pointer ricochet off the backboard. Nobody ever would have known. But that's a story for another time.

So why am I excited about the Nets and Spurs? I have my reasons. None of them deserve to be blown out in red font or anything, but maybe we could give them one of those cool bullet point thingies:

  • When was the last Finals where nobody knew which team had the best player? Not the '97 Finals, even though Mail Fraud ... er, Mailman won the MVP over MJ (puh-leeeze). Not the '94 Finals, because everyone who actually watched basketball knew Hakeem was better than Ewing. Not the '93 Finals, even though Barkley was knocking on the Pantheon Door that year (unfortunately for Chuck, MJ was still at his apex). You probably have to go back to '91, when MJ and Magic battled in the Finals for the first and only time. As good as MJ was that year, he still didn't have a ring. And Magic had five. Although Magic was getting older ...

    Jason Kidd and Tim Duncan
    Who wouldn't want to watch the league's best point guard challenge the league's best big man?
    You know what? We're going back to the '88 Finals: Magic vs. Isiah, both in their absolute primes. That's the last time something like this happened: Two superstars peaking at the right times, then meeting in the Finals. It's a beautiful thing. Kidd and Duncan aren't that good, but they're playing better than anyone right now. And if the Nets win the title, Kidd has to be considered among the greatest guards ever -- behind Jordan, Magic, Isiah, West and Oscar, even with Cousy, and ahead of Stockton, Drexler, Gervin, Maravich and everyone else -- as well as the best basketball player ever to accidentally break his son's collarbone (only because his wife was so desperate for camera time that she had her 3-year-old sitting with her courtside, which should be punishable by jail time, if you ask me).

  • Here's another question: When was the last time there was an even matchup in a Finals? You probably have to go back to '98, the final year of the Jordan Era in Chicago. Utah had homecourt advantage, Pippen was crippled by back problems, and the Bulls were running on fumes after fending off the Pacers in seven (a very underrated series, by the way). Of course, MJ was still MJ. A little tired ... but he was still MJ. So it was a dead-even series. And if Malone didn't have the same look on his face that Greta Van Susteren had during last week's Tyson interview, Utah might have even prevailed.

    As for this year, forget about the Spurs being 3-to-1 favorites; that's ridiculous. Maybe New Jersey couldn't have handled the Lakers, Mavs or Kings in a seven-game series, but the Spurs are perfect for them: An up-tempo team that thrives on the defensive end and struggles in a half-court set (just like the Nets). They do everything the Spurs do, only a little bit better.

    Some of New Jersey's weaknesses are San Antonio strengths, and vice-versa. When the Spurs are making 3s and opening up the paint for Duncan, they're unstoppable. When the Nets are running off missed 3s and bad shots, they're unstoppable. When the Spurs can get a cushion, their defense takes care of the rest. When the Nets can keep it close at crunch time, their defense and Kidd take care of the rest. The Spurs struggle in close games because of their free-throw shooting. The Nets struggle when they're playing from behind. And so on.

    This will be like watching a boxing match where one guy throws a deadly left hook and the other guy throws a killer overhand right. In other words, somebody's going down. Maybe it's an even series on paper ... but there's no way this goes seven.

  • It's impossible to dislike this Nets team. Something wonderful happened with them over these past few weeks, beginning with the final two games of the Bucks series (a tough matchup for them), followed by the callous way they extinguished the Celtics (they didn't HAVE to sweep them, but they did), and culminating with the way they ripped Detroit's collective heart out and stomped on it for four games. Just a hungry team taking care of business from start to finish. Isn't that what sports is all about?

    Richard Jefferson
    Richard Jefferson and the Nets have an enthusiasm that is highly contagious.
    (Note: Just six weeks ago, you might remember me writing that none of the Eastern teams had a chance in the Finals, regardless of who made it from the West. The lesson, as always: I'm an idiot.)

  • The best lesson from this series, especially if New Jersey wins: Fast breaks matter. Wait a second, you're telling me that it's easier to score in transition -- when you have numbers, when the other team is running backward -- then when your opponent has a chance to set up its defense? What a wacky concept!!!!!

  • There are some fun players in this series. You might remember me professing my affection for Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson in last week's column.

    If Kidd and Duncan end up cancelling each other out, and more than one game is decided by "Which supporting cast member steps up and pushes his team over the top?", K-Mart looks like the clear favorite. On the Spurs side, does it get any better than Malik Rose? Wouldn't you go to war with him? And what about Manu Ginobili? What's his ceiling over the next two weeks? Would it shock you if he averaged 20 a game? Hasn't his history (going back to Argentina) shown that he gets better as the stakes get bigger?

    But here's my favorite guy: Stephen "The Human Rollercoaster Ride" Jackson. Has there ever been a more memorable "No, no ... YESSSS!" guy? How many times has Popovich had to pick his colon up from underneath the Spurs bench because of him? What's he doing on this team? The other Spurs are so deliberate and precise; meanwhile, Jackson is launching crazy 3s, flying down the court for one-on-three fast breaks, and screaming for the ball like he's playing at the Y. He's the nightmare guy you hate playing pickup hoops with, but you don't want him playing against you, either. You can't win either way. And as Games 5 and 6 of the Dallas series showed, Stephen Jackson giveth and Stephen Jackson taketh away.

    (Note: I really enjoy him. It almost seems like his agent tells him before every game, "Stephen, if you play well in this game, there's a $25 million contract waiting for us," only he has been doing it for six straight weeks.)

    Tony Parker
  • Then there's this whole Kidd-Parker thing, which has already been beaten to death since the NBA decided to keep us waiting six days for Game 1. As I wrote last week, Kidd is playing point better than anyone in 15 years. It isn't just that he's averaging a 20-9-9 for the playoffs, that he's made just about every big shot you can imagine, that he gets the Nets 15-20 extra points a game with fast breaks, or that he's the most competitive guy in the league. There isn't a single moment when you forget he's out there. He's everywhere. Even when the cameras zoom around and show fans at the game, BOOM! There's his wife and kid! You can't get away from the guy.

    Parker knows this. So he was doing all the right things, keeping his mouth shut, staying humble and acting like your typically nice French guy who you would never leave your girlfriend alone with under any circumstances. And the media kept pushing him, and pushing him ... finally he caved and admitted that he wasn't too worried about playing Kidd in this series. In fact, according to Parker, Stephon Marbury is a much tougher matchup for him.

    Oh, boy.

    Forget about the New York Post splashing this on the back page. With Shaq on cruise control these days, Jason Kidd is the only basketball player alive who you should never -- never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER!!!!!!!!! -- tick off under any circumstances. Just ask Boston fans. He was already going to destroy Parker in this series; now he's about to pull a Schillinger to Parker's Beecher. Would you want to be Tony Parker right now?

    There hasn't been a young player under this kind of spotlight since ... I can't even remember. Even when Kobe was placed under the spotlight in the 2000 Finals, at least you knew he could handle it. With Parker, we're not even sure if he's that good. How much of his success can be contributed to the Spurs' system, or the fact that everything runs through Duncan? There isn't a more naked position in basketball than point guard; just watch a tape of Speedy Claxton's third quarter against the Mavs in Game 6, and you'll see what I mean. When you're falling apart, everyone knows it. Playing someone like Kidd in the Finals at age 21 ...I mean, is Parker even ready for this? And if he isn't, can the Spurs still win this series?

    Stephen Jackson
    Stephen Jackson, right, has played like a man possessed in the playoffs.
  • The dorky basketball fan inside me is excited to see how the Nets handle Duncan. From what I've seen, you keep him in check by knocking him around, sending him to the stripe and wearing him down. With Jason Collins (FYI: not a bad player), Aaron Williams, Rodney Rogers and even the Artist Formerly Known As Dikembe Mutombo, the Nets have plenty of fouls to waste.

    And if Duncan struggles from the line (like he did during the final two games of the Dallas series), it affects his entire game -- he starts shooting fadeaways and 18-footers to avoid getting fouled. If he's making his free throws, then they'll pack in and force the Spurs shooters to make their jumpers. Always dicey.

    One other thing about Duncan, and I think it's keeping him from being the undisputed best player alive right now: Sometimes he gets in these funks where you forget he's even on the floor (like in the second and third quarters of Game 6 in Dallas). Then the cameras show him, and he's making the Tim Duncan Face -- that sad face he makes when nothing's going right, when he looks like a little kid -- and then they cut to the Spurs bench, and Popovich is making that same sad face. They even look alike, much like Stockton and Sloan looked like father and son during Utah's peak years in the '90s. Anyway, whenever that face comes out, it usually means bad things for the Spurs. If Duncan makes it in four of the next seven games, San Antonio is done.

  • As for the coaches ... blah. Byron Scott turned out to be a pretty good coach, although Seann William Scott could probably coach a Jason Kidd team to at least 45 wins. And Popovich does a nice job motivating his team and keeping them focused, even if he needs flashing disco lights and a firework display to alert him when something's not working or one of his guys is struggling (like Claxton in Game 6 -- if Pop didn't put Steve Kerr in or move Ginobili to point, I honestly think I would have had a seizure).

    A Scott-Popovich matchup isn't like watching Rick Adelman and Don Nelson play tic-tac-toe for six hours, but it's not Fischer-Spassky, either. Then again, when you have Duncan and Kidd on the floor, you don't really need Norman Dale on the sidelines. So it's probably a wash.

    Steve Kerr
    It's impossible to root against Steve Kerr.
    Here's a better battle: The battle of decomposing guys --Steve Smith vs. Mutombo. This would have been a push, but throw in Danny Ferry's corpse and the advantage swings toward the Spurs. Does it get any better than garbage time with San Antonio, when Ferry, Smith, Kerr and Kevin Willis are playing at the same time? Couldn't they pick up Herb Williams or Swen Nater for a fifth? And has anyone else noticed that, if the Spurs win the title again, either Kerr or Robert Horry would have been on the LAST TEN title teams? That might be the weirdest stat of all time.

    (Note to the Celtics: Sign Kerr and Horry this summer. Just trust me.)

  • Another great thing about this series: Old ABA highlights!!! Does it get any better than Doc soaring through the air in his prime? Or the Iceman gliding through the lane? Or the red-and-white ball? Or questions like "Where were you when you found out that Larry Kenon had 10 steals in a game?" and "Do you know the real reason why Billy Paultz was called 'The Whopper'?" (hint: it wasn't because of his weight). What a league. I still remember when the Sports Illustrated merger cover came out with Doc and Dave Cowens on the over, their arms around each other -- it was like finding out that Russia and the U.S. were joining forces. And yes, I was only 6.

  • Another interesting subplot: David Robinson's last stand. It has been jarring to watch him pull an Ostertag over these last few weeks, mostly because of the same dynamic as with Reggie Miller in the Boston series -- because these guys look the same physically as they did 10 years ago, you expect them to play the same, but they aren't even remotely in the same ballpark. Robinson's demise has been more sudden then Miller's, partly because of his back-knee problems, but also because people forget that he played four years in college and served two more years in the Navy. In other words, he entered the league at the same age as Jermaine O'Neal is right now. Crazy.

    David Robinson
    David Robinson might be the nicest NBA player ever ... which is both a blessing and a curse.
    So how will history remember him? I always thought he should have been the greatest center ever, but he was always too nice of a guy. When MJ went on his baseball sabbatical during Robinson's prime, there was a gaping opening for Robinson to become The Guy, but Hakeem Olajuwon just wanted it more (when they went head-to-head in the playoffs, it was surprisingly one-sided in Hakeem's favor). By the time Robinson finally won a title in '99, Duncan was the best player on his team, and besides ... that title didn't count because the '99 season never happened.

    Anyway, even if his personality kept him from reaching his potential as a player -- and he still ended up cracking the NBA's Top 50, even if he should have been unstoppable with that body and those skills -- that same generous quality made him the greatest person out of anyone from his generation of players. Seriously, who else would give $9 million of his own money to build a school? You know when you read about some people and feel embarrassed because you never touched people's lives in the same way? That was Robinson. As a person, he was the polar opposite of just about everyone else in the league. Just an amazing guy.

    One other thing: When we had our old Celtics seats in the Boston Garden, I watched every relevant NBA player from 1976 to 1995 walk through the player's tunnel, which was literally inches away from me and my father (our seats were so close, we could reach out and touch the players). And during that 20-year span, there were only four memorable "entrances." MJ and Bird, for obvious reasons. Manute Bol, for obvious reasons.

    And No. 4? David Robinson.

    I still remember him walking by us in his rookie season, his first time in the Garden, with everyone in my section letting out a collective "Whoa" sound. Nobody looked more like a basketball player than David Robinson. It was like seeing a prize thoroughbred or a brand-new Testarossa or something. I can't explain it. Some guys were just destined to play sports for a living. Maybe he's on his last legs now, but his career meant something beyond "Boy, he was good," and not too many guys can say that.

    Jason Kidd
    Jason Kidd isn't just knocking on the Pantheon Door ... he's breaking it down.
  • Along those same lines, this is such an insanely likable Spurs team, whether you're talking about that classic moment near the end of the final Lakers game -- when Popovich was telling his guys not to celebrate too much on the bench, so Kerr asked if he could taunt the Lakers fan who was yelling at him all game, then gave the guy a little wave. And what about Game 6 of the Mavs series, which will officially be called "The Steve Kerr Game" from now through eternity? Did you see the Spurs bench going bonkers when Spurs was draining those 3s? How can you root against these guys?

    Is it humanly possible to root against a team with Steve Kerr when he's walking into the postgame press conference and saying, "I never thought I'd be here again"? In the words of the immortal Tony Barbieri, "These are good guys!"

  • And with that said ... I'm picking the Nets. And I'm not just picking them. I'm telling you, they're going to win. The team with the best player always wins the title. And I mean, always. You would have to travel all the way back to 1974 -- when the Celtics outlasted Kareem and the Bucks -- to find a Finals where the team featuring the best player didn't end up winning the series.

    So that's what this series comes down to: Kidd vs. Duncan. And as much as I like Duncan, Kidd isn't just knocking on the Pantheon Door right now, he's like Rob Lowe at the end of St. Elmo's Fire, standing outside Demi Moore's apartment, holding a fire extinguisher and screaming, "All right, I'm coming through!!!!!" Nobody's playing better than Jason Kidd right now. Nobody. And that's why I'm going with the Nets in six.

    Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and he's a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live.