1999: Spurs versus Knicks (The Twin Towers)

Background

The 1999 NBA season was cut short due to a lockout and only comprised of 50 games. The Spurs had struggled to realize playoff success in the ’90s and earned the number one overall draft pick (Tim Duncan) in 1997 after an early season injury to franchise center David Robinson. In their second season of pairing big men Duncan and Robinson, the “Twin Towers,” the San Antonio Spurs won a league-best 37 games behind coach Gregg Popovich, enough to secure the number one seed in the playoffs. In the first round, the Spurs easily dispatched the Minnesota Timberwolves in four games, then swept the Los Angeles Lakers. In the Western Conference Finals, San Antonio again moved on with a sweep of the Portland Trailblazers–featuring the game two “Memorial Day Miracle.” With this win the Spurs moved on to the franchise’s first ever NBA Finals.

The New York Knicks struggled throughout the regular season and barely made the playoffs as the 8 seed. Their fortunes reversed in the playoffs, however, as they became the second team to upset a 1 seed in the playoffs after Allan Houston hit a game-winner in game five to knock off the Miami Heat. In the second round the Knicks surprisingly swept the Atlanta Hawks, setting up an Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers. The teams traded wins in the first two games, but center Patrick Ewing was lost to injury after game two. New York went with a small lineup after game three and proceeded to defeat Indiana in six games, reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since the 1994 season.

Lineups

The Spurs started veteran point guard Avery Johnson alongside previous champion Mario Elie at shooting guard in the back court. In the front court, sharpshooter Sean Elliott started at small forward alongside the “Twin Towers,” second-year power forward Tim Duncan and 1995 NBA MVP center David “The Admiral” Robinson.

Having been traded after the 1998 season, veteran shooter Steve Kerr played the role of third guard and second-year guard Antonio Daniels was the fourth off the bench. Swingman Jaren Jackson backed up both Elie and Elliott, and Malik Rose was the third big man off the bench. Jerome Kersey and Gerard King saw few minutes in the NBA Finals.

Charlie Ward was the starting point guard for the Knicks next to shooting guard Allan Houston. Latrell Sprewell stepped in at small forward as New York went with a small starting lineup, and All-Star Larry Johnson slid over to his more natural power forward spot. Future Hall-of-Fame center Patrick Ewing missed the whole NBA Finals and was replaced by young center Marcus Camby.

Chris Childs served as Ward’s primary back-up at point guard, and Kurt Thomas came in as the third big man off the bench. Center Chris Dudley was relegated to the bench after poor play closing out the Eastern Conference Finals and the first two games of the NBA Finals. Rick Brunson and Herb Williams rarely played in the Finals.

Game One: Knicks 77, Spurs 89

The Knicks led after the first quarter of game one, but poor shooting and foul trouble proved to be their undoing over the final three quarters. Tim Duncan was dominant in his first Finals game, logging 33 points, 16 rebounds, and 2 blocks, Robinson had a near triple-double of 13/9/7, and Jaren Jackson delivered 17 points with 5 huge three’s off the bench. Sprewell and Houston both scored 19 points to lead New York, but Larry Johnson played only 21 minutes due to foul trouble and managed only 5 points.

Game Two: Knicks 67, Spurs 80

Tim Duncan continued his dominance into game two, delivering 25 points, 15 rebounds, and 4 blocks as the Spurs led the game wire-to-wire. For the Knicks, foul trouble was again a factor as center Marcus Camby fouled out in the fourth quarter, and Larry Johnson again struggled with only five points on 2/12 shooting. Robinson contributed another double-double with five blocks of his own, and Elie and Elliott combined for 25 points. Sprewell and Houston led New York with 26 and 19 points respectively, but it came on a combined 17 for 42 shooting, and the Knicks now faced a 2-0 deficit headed back to the Big Apple.

Game Three: Spurs 81, Knicks 89

The Knicks jumped out to an early 11-point lead after the first quarter, and Houston exploded for a game-high 34 points. Despite playing 47 out of the 48 minutes, Duncan was less effective than the previous two games with only 20 points and 1 block. Withstanding a Spurs’ comeback in the second quarter, New York won their first game of the series with help from Sprewell and Johnson’s combined 40 points. Robinson led San Antonio with 25 points of his own, but the series now stood at 2-1 with two more games at Madison Square Garden.

Game Four: Spurs 96, Knicks 89

A relatively close game, the Knicks looked to even up the series at two games apiece. Their efforts were stifled by Robinson and Duncan’s continued dominance on the boards and on defense, combining for 35 rebounds and 7 blocks. Finding success in his new starting role, Marcus Camby contributed 20 points and 13 rebounds to go along with Sprewell and Houston’s combined 46 points. All Spurs’ starters scored in double figures, however, led by Duncan’s game-high 28 points. San Antonio won their third game of the series, pushing New York to the brink of elimination.

Game Five: Spurs 78, Knicks 77

Looking to force a game six back in San Antonio, the Knicks came out running and held the lead throughout most of the first half. Spark plug off the bench Jaren Jackson came up clutch with a three at the end of the second quarter to reclaim the lead. Duncan and Sprewell had an offensive showdown in the second half, each carrying their team. The fourth quarter saw the two teams struggle to establish a substantial lead, and it turned out to be the shortest guy on the court, Avery Johnson, who hit the go-ahead baseline jumper with less than a minute left to put the Spurs ahead for good. Playing all but two minutes, Duncan put on another masterful performance with 31 points and 9 rebounds. Robinson chipped in a double-double of his own, and Elie and Jackson combined for 21 points. Sprewell exploded for 35 points, but Houston was largely unheard of and New York fell in five games.

Aftermath

For his efforts in leading San Antonio to the championship, especially in only his second season, Tim Duncan was awarded the Finals MVP. The Spurs’ success would not be short-lived, as the franchise would set an unprecedented streak of 16 straight 50-win seasons. They reached the Western Conference Finals again in 2001, but it wasn’t until 2003 that they would make it to the NBA Finals again, looking for their second NBA title.

The Knicks would make it to the Eastern Conference Finals again in 2000, but they would fall to their rival Indiana Pacers. In the coming seasons, the team would undergo significant roster changes. Ewing, in the twilight of his career, was traded to the Seattle SuperSonics. As a franchise, the Knicks would fail to achieve similar success as in the ’90s, and would reach the playoffs only six times after their 1999 NBA Finals appearance.

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