- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- All participants in the 2003 NBA Finals became fully engaged Wednesday with about three minutes, 20 seconds left in the third quarter. That's when, as Kevin Willis' fadeaway seven-foot jumper found net, Nets forward Kenyon Martin sent Tim Duncan sprawling into the basket stanchion. Realizing by now that only an X-ray from his doctor or a note from his lawyer was going to prompt a foul call, Duncan played the rest of the game quietly seething.
To which I say, it's about time. All this polite, respectful banter between K-Mart and TD was getting on my nerves.
Now it's Game On.
"It set the tone," said Nets center Dikembe Mutombo of the elevated physicality between the series' power forwards in the Nets' 77-76 win. "I think it changed the way the rest of this series is going to be played."
To which I also say, Praise the Lord and pass the elbow pads. The best-of-seven series is now tied at 2-2 and if there's little chance of seeing well-executed basketball, let's take it the other direction and make up in unbridled passion for what's missing in precision. The Spurs were pure cut-ups in their pregame layup line with their monstrous 2-1 lead, Duncan and Malik Rose taking 12-foot underhanded rainbows to start, Duncan and Bruce Bowen juggling a ball soccer-style a little later and even Steve Smith attempting a Meadowlark Lemon hook shot from near midcourt.
A warning to the kids out there: There's a fine line between being loose and being loopy. The Spurs crossed it and needed 2½ quarters to find their way back to levity, and not everyone made it back before the final buzzer. Stephen Jackson, Tony Parker and Rose finished a collective 2-for-30, Rose never leaving the bench in the second half and Jackson unwinding the tape on his sore hand as if he was done for the night after being subbed out with nearly 6½ minutes left.
To top it all off, Jackson did his version of Rasheed Wallace's both-teams-played-hard mantra to every question.
Did the physicality go to another level?
"I don't know," Jackson said.
What frustrated you most?
"I don't know."
You ever see a team shoot like that?
"I don't know. That's my answer to everything. I don't know."
Are you doing a Rasheed?
"I don't know. That's for you to judge, not me."
Willis refused to believe the pregame antics were a harbinger.
"Getting focussed starts way before the layup line," he said. "The layup line is to get your body loose. Tim and Malik have taken those shots all year long. I've got my own thing I do. I don't think that had anything to do with it. We just need to play 48 minutes, not in spurts. We can't be soft. We have to play from the start the way we did at the end."
But ... ah, never mind. My guess, nevertheless, is you won't see any more layup-line clowning for the rest of this series. Again to which I say, Give Thanks and Pass the Eye Black. Parker and Jason Kidd have been too complimentary about each other for my tastes, too, although Kidd probably fired the first salvo before Game 4 when asked what Parker did better than he did.
"Speak French," he said.
The Nets collectively showed Parker some respect by making half an effort to slow him down. They did nothing more than keep a fresh defender on him, assigning Kerry Kittles to him mostly, and it had prodigious success, limiting him to 1-for-12 shooting and exposing the fool's gold of proclaiming Parker a good scoring guard when the opponent doesn't game-plan for him. In Games 1 through 3, the Nets let him go and he did relatively well, working the pick-and-roll to average 21 points on 41 percent shooting. Not great, but probably better than expected. The Nets made the slightest adjustment in Game 4 -- thereby saving Kidd's energy to run the offense and play help D for all but one minute -- and Parker was so out of it Popovich asked, "Do you want to play?" before reluctantly putting him in to relieve an exhausted Speedy Claxton for the final eight minutes. Kidd didn't shoot well, but he posted up Parker and forced double teams that led to a series-high 19 team offensive rebounds to go with nine assists.
In any case, there's no coasting along for the Spurs anymore. If Parker goes into a shell or Rose lets his offense affect his defense or Duncan doesn't make his free throws, this season-long saunter toward a title goes offline for good.
"The series does have an edge to it now," Willis said.
"We are both playing hard and we are competing for a title," Duncan said. "Both teams are competing."
Hopefully. Maybe. Finally.
If the basketball isn't going to be pretty, the Nets and Spurs should at least get a little physical.