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Tuesday, May 27
Once again, Heimlich maneuver can't save Spurs

By Chris Palmer
ESPN The Magazine

SAN ANTONIO -- The San Antonio Spurs forgot to bring their game. They stalled, sputtered, bumbled and choked their way to an embarrassing loss that ranks as one of the worst in franchise history.

That's pretty much the only way to sum up what took place at the SBC Center in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals in what ended as a shocking 103-91 Dallas Mavericks win.

Tim Duncan
Tony Parker, left, Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen, right, contemplate what went wrong in Game 5.
"They outplayed us," Tim Duncan said. "It's as simple as that."

The Spurs had the look of fear in their eyes during the crucial fourth quarter in which the Mavericks outscored the guys in white and black 29-10. Stop there. The Spurs could only offer up 10 measly points in the final 12 minutes of a close-out game at home. Ridiculous. Pathetic. Horrible. It's a good thing Simon Cowell wasn't in the house.

This was their chance at seven days of rest. Now they may only get three days. Or possibly five months.

The fans at SBC, not terribly loud to begin with, sat on their hands with jaws dropped while watching their boys very inconveniently going into their shells when the going got tough. The Spurs seemed bent on pounding the ball inside to Duncan while half of North Dallas was draped on his arm. Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen, Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili -- all very capable long-range shooters -- were reluctant to pull the trigger when it most counted. And all this time we thought the Mavericks were the team without the go-to guy.

At the risk of using a tired sports cliché, the Mavericks wanted it more. Think about that. the Mavericks wanted to force a Game 6 more than the Spurs wanted to advance to the NBA Finals. Strange but very true. It says more about the Spurs than it does the Mavs.

The usually media-friendly Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich snapped at reporters trying to get the coach to elaborate on his team's colossal meltdown. Popovich, who owns a 42-29 playoff record including the '99 crown, didn't spare his players, either. "Anyone with half a brain knows that you have to do little things to close teams out," said a fuming Pop. "We didn't do those things tonight."

Anyone with half a brain knows that you have to do little things to close teams out. We didn't do those things tonight.
Gregg Popovich

Things like diving on the floor for loose balls, swinging the ball around the perimeter for a better shot or taking no-brainer shots at crucial moments. The Spurs were beaten to nearly every loose ball and got a major spanking from Eduardo Najera (11 points, eight rebounds), who is fast finding his niche as a selfless garbage man.

But for the better part of the first three quarters, the Spurs played nearly flawless championship-caliber basketball. They shot 60.6 percent from the field in the first half to a skimpy 34 percent by Dallas. They outscored the Mavs in the paint 26-18 and even edged them 8-7 on the break. There was a stretch in the second quarter where they sliced up the Dallas D with one back door cut after another. Parker to Rose. Ginobli to Duncan. Rose to Duncan. It didn't make a difference. It looked like a clinic.

In the second half, they boosted the lead to as much as 17 points before Nick Van Exel rallied his troops and both teams decided to show everyone in the building who wanted it more.

Before he left the podium, Duncan once again reiterated the painful truth. "They just outplayed us," the league MVP said. Considering the circumstances, those words could have easily been accompanied by tears or the pounding of the table in the interview room at the SBC Center. But this is Tim Duncan and there is no way to gauge how he feels, good or bad, by the sound of his voice.

But you could see it in his blank and glossy eyes. Fortunately for Duncan, he has one more chance to right the Spurs' ship on Thursday night in Dallas. And trust me, one more chance is all he wants.

Chris Palmer is a senior reporter for ESPN The Magazine.



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