- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- They used the 3-2 zone more than ever before, which helped them seize a 3-2 lead in these NBA Finals, which makes the situation rather simple for the San Antonio Spurs to score.
It's officially a save situation now.
Good thing they've unearthed a steely new closer.
"I'm Dennis Eckersley," Steve Kerr said with a laugh.
He was actually laughing at himself as he made the unexpected walk, yet again, to the podium where the big stars talk. He stopped briefly to take some grief from his former Arizona teammate, Tom Tolbert, about the high-stepping backward shuffle Kerr trotted out after his dagger jumper sealed this Game 5 victory over the New Jersey Nets.
Kerr was chuckling at it all because even he's a bit stunned. Not that his shots went down, just as they did in Game 6 of the Dallas series, because he still believes in his shot as much as anyone in the league. The shock stems from Kerr's newfound ability to come in freezing cold, after sitting on the bench for days, and make shots in the cauldron of the fourth quarter like it's standard stuff.
"I've got the greatest job on Earth," Kerr quipped. "I come in, I play like six minutes, I make a couple shots and then I come do interviews in the interview room."
From here, the shock will be showing up for Game 6 on Sunday back in San Antonio and finding out that Kerr's job description hasn't changed. Because it's time. It's time for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who snapped at a reporter after Game 4 for merely asking about Kerr, to tap his right arm even before the fourth quarter arrives and get Kerr on the floor more.
The way the Spurs blow leads? As shaky as they've looked in the Finals? As much as they've struggled at home throughout the playoffs?
It's time. Kerr has to be a featured member of the Game 6 rotation, and he's a must for crunch time alongside that lefty reliever from Argentina, because a Kerr-Manu Ginobili tandem alongside Tim Duncan adds up to a good safety measure for a team hoping to avoid a Game 7.
"There's no question we have needed that," David Robinson said of the Kerr-Ginobili tag team -- but mostly in reference to Kerr -- after the three of them combined for four late steals that helped secure the 93-83 triumph. After his steal, and after mostly hanging out at the 3-point line to create space down low for Duncan, Kerr nailed a three and then curled around Jason Kidd for a clinching 15-foot swish, all of it adding to his Western Conference finals heroics and that famed jumper in the '97 Finals off a kick-out from Michael Jordan.
The unwavering faith Popovich has shown in the kiddies who surround Duncan is admirable, gutsy and generally difficult to question. Tony Parker and Stephen Jackson, along with Bruce Bowen and Speedy Claxton, have successfully flanked Duncan throughout a 60-win season, and an 18-game march through the West playoff bracket. It has to be intoxicating for the Spurs to consider how far the kiddies have come while imagining what the experiences of today will do for them in the future. But now ...
Now the Spurs are one win away from a championship they never expected this season. They are one win away from a storybook sendoff for Admiral Dave. They are also only two home losses away from an unforgivable collapse, and so the situation calls for two obvious tweaks to Pop's lineup.
Ginobili, for starters, should be getting more minutes than the starter Jackson, and the proof is in the score. When he showed up for work Friday, Ginobili had the highest plus-minus rating of any player in the playoffs at plus-165 -- meaning that the Spurs had outscored the opposition by 165 points, in 22 games, with Ginobili on the floor. In Game 5, the Spurs were plus-16 in Ginobili's 26 minutes.
Tweak No. 2: Don't simply save Kerr for those desperation situations, when all the young Spurs athletes get in foul trouble. After his four fourth-quarter threes to eliminate the Mavericks, and then his two late swishes against the Nets -- all coming at least two hours after the warmup, don't forget -- it's clear that Kerr's shooting is still a game-changing commodity if you have the defense to cover for him. The Spurs, as everyone knows, do have such a defense ... but they don't have anyone who throws a post entry pass like Kerr. Which is another reason to play him.
"I love to see him on the floor," Duncan said. "I love to get the ball on the post and see a guy trying to step off him a little bit and to throw that ball out to him. Every time I throw it out to him, I hope he shoots it, because I really do believe it's going in every time.
"He's just an intelligent basketball player. He didn't come out on the court and think, 'The first chance I'm going to get, I'm going to force a shot.' It was actually a little annoying for me because I wanted him to shoot the ball. But he waited his time, he went up and down the floor a couple times, got himself warm. And when it came down to it, he hit some big shots. He just knows when to take them and when not to."
Kerr also knows that players can get tight in the Finals -- as it seemed for Parker, Jackson and Malik Rose on Wednesday night -- because it has happened to Kerr in the Finals. That's why he called Parker and Jackson in their hotel rooms before Game 5 to urge them to let the anger go.
"What I told them is that I've been there before," Kerr said. "I had games in the Finals where I shot terribly. I think my first year in the Finals, in '96 (with Chicago), I probably shot 30 percent for the series. I was nervous. So I understand what they're going through out there. It's tough to have all this pressure and have everybody watching and after every game you've got thousands of (media) people asking why you screwed up."
That's no longer the question at hand. The question is whether Popovich, resistant to change at any time but especially now in the title round, will let Kerr close the close-out game. Play him alongside Ginobili and/or Bowen and even Kerr's defense, at 37, looks rather passable. That was confirmed when he stripped the ball from Kenyon Martin out of that 3-2 zone with 3:20 to go and San Antonio clinging to a four-point cushion.
"I'm a little better than people give me credit for defensively," Kerr said. "I'm not going to stop anybody. But I know the angles and I understand what we're trying to do."
Which is also Kerr's justification for resisting the urge to lobby Popovich for more playing time. "He's got a tough job, with everybody yelling at him to put me in," Kerr said. "I know he gets sick of it, but it doesn't bother me. This is just my role."
We'll say it since he won't. With the Spurs needing one more win, and thus one more save, it's a role that needs to be expanded pronto. Even Jackson, who loathes being pulled from games, had to marvel at Kerr's flawless finish.
"He deserves it," Jackson said of Kerr's presence for much of the fourth quarter, noting that Kerr already owns four championship rings.
"It's fun to be out there at the end," Kerr said. "It's something I look forward to."
5dEthan Sherwood Strauss
6dMatt Walks, ESPN.com