- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It is the competitive NBA Finals we have all craved for years.
It is all square, America: Spurs 2, Nets 2.
It is the first time in six springs that the championship round is split after four games -- the first time since Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls split the first four with Karl Malone's Utah Jazz in 1997 -- which must mean that it is dripping with gripping games.
Except that it's not.
Except for the 2-2 part, it's almost none of the above.
No one was craving this for Game 4: Nets 77, Spurs 76. Not after Spurs 84, Nets 79 in Game 3.
No one is going to be gushing about the drama when the Spurs can shoot 28.9 percent from the floor and still feel like they legitimately gave it away, largely because the Nets missed nearly 70 percent of their shots themselves.
Even the Nets didn't look especially thrilled by this latest installment of Uglyball, even though they survived it. They barely celebrated their victory on the floor, a win secured only after the alleged dramatics of a Manu Ginobili 3-pointer -- airballed, of course -- that could have forced overtime.
"This series is going to be played like this pretty much the whole series," New Jersey's Byron Scott warned late Wednesday night.
"Might as well get used to it."
It's not a coach's job to worry about aesthetics, or TV ratings, so Scott was going to be the last guy apologizing for the unsightly show. Especially since the Nets' only chance to win this series was winning Game 4, by any means possible, to avoid the 3-1 hole that represents certain extermination.
Yet the display was still sad, yet again, for those of us who aren't going to be duped by a scoreboard which doesn't really tell us just how treacherous the road has been to 2-2.
It never bothered me that these Finals featured only one recognized star on each team, because I don't subscribe to the gospel in this country that says We Will Only Pay Attention To Big Names. That's also because I believed that a good series, stretched to six or seven games, could make up for the lack of starry personalities, at least for basketball fans. I accept that the casual fans won't be drawn to Tim Duncan vs. Jason Kidd under any circumstances, but the prospect of a Finals played on even footing had to hold some appeal.
Kenyon Martin agreed with me, announcing the other day that "the names don't make the game." Of course, that theory supposes that the game can make up for the missing names. Any one of these games will do. Trouble is, the games in these Finals are getting worse, as much because no one can shoot as it is because both teams can really play D.
"Shooting," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich deadpanned, "was a little bit of a problem."
From the Nets, that's expected, as there isn't a pure stroker among them. Kerry Kittles and Lucious Harris, the best perimeter threats in Jersey, are on the streaky side at best. This is essentially a three-man team (Kidd, Martin and Richard Jefferson) with a marginal bench that would struggle to crack the West's top five. But they do defend and they are determined and they wholly deserve their 2-2 split, after a cruise through the East playoffs that couldn't have served as the best preparation.
It's the Spurs who have disappointed most on the big stage. They're the team that won the mighty West. They're the team that knocked out the vaunted Lakers. They're the team that closed out each of the previous three playoff rounds with a Game 6 win on the road.
Where is that team now?
"We know we haven't played well all series," said Spurs guard Speedy Claxton. "We haven't been able to get consistency out of the whole group. Once we do that, we should run through them.
"I'm not going to discredit them, because they're a good team. But I think most of it is us."
Added teammate Steve Kerr: "The Nets deserve a lot of credit. They have a lot to do with us missing shots. But I think the key to beating them isn't making shots -- it's playing smart. I don't recognize the frantic team I see out there."
That's because, for really the first time in these playoffs, the Spurs look rattled. Perhaps the pressure of the Finals is affecting some of the kiddies, whose poise is deteriorating. San Antonio's best shooters -- Kerr and Steve Smith -- almost never play, but Tony Parker, Stephen Jackson and Bruce Bowen have all made big splashes from the perimeter in these playoffs. Those three should never misfire like they did in Game 4, spurning plenty of good looks to shoot a combined 4-for-30.
That was lowlighted by Parker's 1-for-12, and numerous positional or decision-making gaffes by Parker and Jackson. Throw in an 0-for-9 from Malik Rose and suddenly the Spurs, while still sitting in the favorable position at 2-2 and with two of the next three games at home, are still waiting for one performance to rival some of the games they played in their own hellacious conference.
"Let's play good basketball for 48 minutes," David Robinson implored. "I don't think we have done that yet. I know we can. I've seen us do it."
The expectation remains that the Spurs, who typically respond to defeat with a clutch victory, will win Game 5 and then close out their second championship in five years in Game 6.
Then again ...
The Spurs are supposed to be the team in this matchup that lifts the level of play, but they're running out of chances to play as well as the hopeful (gullible?) among us expected. If these "competitive" Finals don't get watchable soon, hanging an asterisk on another Spurs title might be the nicest thing anyone says about them.
It's hard to notice the drama of a 2-2 tie in the NBA Finals when the shooting is sheer horror.