EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Feelin' lucky?
It's Friday the Thirteenth, and yes we are. Here at Stein Line HQ, we've always greeted Friday the Thirteenths with anticipation. Your faithful/humble correspondent was married on a Friday the Thirteenth. It's not a day we choose to fear. It's a day we embrace.
Hence our optimism about Game 5 of the NBA Finals. We cling to the hope that the Game 4 display of rim-chipping was a bottoming-out, the nadir of a steady decline in execution in this series. I'm not ready to echo Richard Jefferson's suggestion that both teams are due for "a breakout game where we score 100-something points," but I'm banking on something resembling an offensive rebound for all parties Friday night.
Borrowing from my ESPNews brethren, here's W2W4 -- that's code for What To Watch For -- in Game 5 and beyond ... starting with the idea that, on this Thirteenth, we're bound to see more than 14 shots made from beyond 15 feet, which is all we got in Game 4.
The tension and angst between the teams is growing, at 2-2 and with both believing they have a real chance to win the first non-Lakers championship of the millennium. The pressure, though, is firmly all on the Spurs now, in Game 5 and any game that follows. The champs from the mighty West have not closed out a single playoff series at home, and they know it. San Antonio doesn't deny that it focuses far better on the road. Of greater concern, from the Spurs' perspective, is that they seem to be getting tighter the longer this series goes, knowing that they're not supposed to be losing to the East champs. Could be that San Antonio's standing as an overwhelming favorite, on the NBA's biggest stage, is unnerving the kids around Tim Duncan. So if the Nets can win Game 5, you'd have to like their chances to score the necessary split at SBC Center. The Lakers, strangely, are the only visiting team that hasn't won there in the playoffs.
Don't forget this could be Jason Kidd's last home game as a Net. It'll be interesting to see what kind of scene results from that possibility.
Don't forget II: Sunday or Wednesday, whether this series ends in Game 6 or Game 7, will definitely be David Robinson's last home game as a Spur. Which won't be quite the festive occasion if the Spurs actually lose this thing.
As previously noted here, this is the first Finals since 1997 in which the teams have split the first four games. Which inevitably leads to a Michael Jordan reference or two. In '97, with Jordan's Bulls and Karl Malone's Utah Jazz knotted at 2-2, a flu-ridden MJ submitted his 38-point Game 5 masterpiece. Expect to hear plenty of recollections about that fairy tale if New Jersey's Kenyon Martin, struggling with the flu himself this week, is the Game 5 star. The Spurs, meanwhile, are trying to become the first road team without Jordan to snap a 2-2 tie in the Finals since 1977. That's when ESPN colleagues Bill Walton and Dr. Jack Ramsay guided Portland to a Game 5 win at Philadelphia. The Blazers, remember, won the final four games of that series after falling behind, 2-zip.
The Spurs are already the first team in Finals history to fail to score at least 20 points in the first quarter in four consecutive games. Again we say: New Jersey's defense is good, indeed, but it's not all Nets. The Spurs are approaching these games too casually and have to stop. Immediately.
This is not hockey, so there will be no Jean-Sebastien Giguere situation here. The NBA Finals MVP is an award intended to reward performances from the championship series specifically, not the playoffs as a whole. Which means that, four games into the Finals, that trophy is also up for grabs. You can actually make the case, going off each team's two victories, that Tony Parker and Martin are the leading contenders, over Duncan or Kidd. Parker was a legit spark in San Antonio's two victories, especially with his big fourth quarter in Game 3, and Martin is the only Nets player in this series with a positive plus-minus ratio. With Martin on the floor, New Jersey has outscored San Antonio by two points.
OK, OK. This isn't hockey, but we do like our plus-minus numbers. Duncan and Manu Ginobili, according to the folks at Elias Sports Bureau, are the leaders in this series. Duncan is at plus-23 through the first four games and plus-162 for the entire playoffs. Ginobili is at plus-22 and plus-165 for the playoffs -- the latter representing the highest plus-minus rating of any player on any team in the postseason.
The Nets' stout showing can't obscure the overall weakness of the East, but they've certainly validated their own toughness. New Jersey has established a playoff record this postseason by winning five games by two points or less, two in these Finals. It's a feat made doubly impressive by the fact New Jersey was 4-10 during the regular season in games decided by five points or less worst in the league of any playoff team. Nets coach Byron Scott probably won't get the credit for this, either, since he never does, but the Nets' total turnaround in this area is another hint that Scott's hardened playoff mentality, taught to him by Pat Riley, has been breathed in by his players.
Credit both coaches for refusing to turn this into a whinefest -- a trend we can root for, unlike the accuracy decline on the perimeter. Contrary to most portrayals, Scott didn't complain about the refereeing in this series until a reporter asked him to. Even then it wasn't a passionate rant, like we might see from Phil Jackson, without even waiting for the question. The ref subject wasn't broached until the eighth question of Scott's press briefing Tuesday, and he essentially said that the officiating was "a little one-sided." Hardly scathing. San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, given a chance to rebut Thursday, didn't say much more, explaining that "I choose to live my life believing that there is no conspiracy theory." Doesn't mean that either team likes the calls; New Jersey has shot 25 fewer free throws for the series and Duncan was sent to the line only three times Wednesday night. But the last thing these Finals need is a lot of whining on top of the bricking. So we applaud the restraint. "I think it's better to focus on what you can control," Popovich said. "As I said, we can control our poor shooting and poor performances on some people's part and we can control getting back in transition or keeping people off the offensive board."
You'll note that Jefferson didn't promise a 100-point performance. Smart move, since the Nets have to score 90 first. Yet there were a couple guarantees floated Thursday, which always adds a little spice, since one of these called shots has to miss. "We are going to win," New Jersey's Dikembe Mutombo said of Game 5. "We are going to win, and then we are going to San Antonio and we are going to steal one and come back and have a parade. We are going to have a parade here, guys." Countered San Antonio's Malik Rose: "We're supposed to be a little pissed off (after shooting 29 percent in Game 4), but we're not down. We know we're going to win this series."