- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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SAN ANTONIO -- Throughout the playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs have wasted little time in demonstrating a clear advantage over their opponent. They've been equally quick at demonstrating a complete disregard for that advantage and making each series far more exciting than it needed to be.
The drill goes something like this:
When they make their free throws and avoid unforced turnovers, they win.
When they heave bricks from the line and terrorize those sitting in courtside seats with their passes, they lose.
The NBA Finals, apparently, aren't going to be any different, based on the Nets' 87-85 win Friday night. Sure, credit New Jersey for their resilience and Jason Kidd for coming alive and Kenyon Martin offering more proof he's a big-time player and Dikembe Mutombo for making good on his belief he could help. But without 22 turnovers and 11 missed free throws (14 of 25), San Antonio rolls east with a stranglehold on the series.
That, though, simply isn't their way.
"You could almost say we don't want to win because we give so many games away," said Stephen Jackson, who also gave away seven turnovers, a few too many for his four second-half 3-pointers to overcome. "We have to understand what's at stake. But I don't know how to change it."
The Nets showed tremendous determination in rebounding from their desultory first-game performance to earn the franchise's first-ever championship-round victory. It ties the best-of-seven series at one game apiece, which brings us back to the Spurs' penchant for going all fruit-and-juicy on us the second they've demonstrated their clear superiority. They're modern-day Sir Galahads, earning a privileged glimpse of the Holy Grail and then inexplicably dropping their swords to welcome their demise.
"We've done this," said Steve Kerr, "every series."
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich wasn't being cavalier in refusing to attribute his team's 22 turnovers to a new set of Nets' schematics. "We do that on our own quite often," he said. "I think we showed a real lack of respect for the situation tonight for three quarters, and then finally when it got critical, it looked like the basketball team that I've watched play all year. But you can't play like that in an NBA Finals series."
Traditionally, teams aren't supposed to get away with that in any playoff series. Had the first round not been expanded to best-of-seven this year, maybe they would've already paid the price for goofing around and losing Game 1 to the Phoenix Suns.
"I thought we had learned our lesson by now," Jackson said, "but I guess not."
Blame it on not having targeted this season as the road to a championship until late March. This was supposed to be a season in which rookie Manu Ginobili and Jackson and second-year point guard Tony Parker gained experience, David Robinson said his quiet farewells and Tim Duncan waited until a boatload of free-agency money landed Kidd and a big man to replace Robinson this summer. Next year was supposed to be the beginning of the dynasty or the quest or whatever.
"It's probably as good a theory as any," Kerr said. "The problems we have are related to inexperience. One thing we have to remember is we beat teams by wearing them down, not blitzing them. When we're down, we can't get rattled."
Relaxing when they're up early isn't a great idea, either. They rolled out to an early 10-2 lead and couldn't have been more giddy during the next timeout, slapping each other on the head and sharing jokes and pointing up in the stands. Six minutes later, the lead had evaporated and, except for a brief exchange at the start of the second quarter, it was never to be seen again.
"I won't spend a lot of time wondering about it," Popovich said. "Just go and play the next one."
That approach, precarious as it may seem, has worked so far -- but only because there's always been one more to play.