2003: Spurs versus Nets (Duncan at his Peak)

Background

After winning the 1999 NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs had emerged as one of the elite teams in the league. Despite their regular season success, they couldn’t reach the NBA Finals due to a rivalry with the Lakers, losing to Los Angeles in the 2001 and 2002 Western Conference playoffs. In 2003, the team surrounding reigning league MVP Tim Duncan looked decidedly different, but the Spurs reeled off a league-best 60 wins–earning Duncan his second consecutive MVP award. During the regular season, former MVP David Robinson announced the season would be his last, hoping to end his career with another championship. In the playoffs, San Antonio defeated the Phoenix Suns in six games before finally ending the reign of the Los Angeles Lakers with a six game series victory. In the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs outlasted the high-scoring Dallas Mavericks in six games to reach the franchise’s second NBA Finals.

The New Jersey Nets were coming off a disappointing sweep in the 2002 NBA Finals at the hands of the Lakers, but the team was still confident they could still contend. In an attempt to bolster their defense, the team traded starters Keith Van Horn and Todd MacCulloch to the Philadelphia 76ers for four-time Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo. The center would play little due to injury, but the Nets still managed to win their division with 49 wins, earning them the number two seed in the playoffs. In the first round, New Jersey eliminated the Gary Payton and the Milwaukee Bucks in a six game series, and then found their stride. The Nets swept the Boston Celtics then top-seeded Detroit Pistons–thanks to a game-winner from Kidd in game one–in sequence to reach the franchise’s second straight NBA Finals. Riding a ten-game win streak, New Jersey was confident about their chances in the championship series.

Lineups

The Spurs started young Frenchman Tony Parker at point guard alongside Stephen Jackson at shooting guard. Defensive-minded small forward Bruce Bowen started in the front court alongside the “Twin Towers,” two-time MVP Tim Duncan at power forward and future Hall-of-Famer David Robinson at center.

San Antonio used Speedy Claxton off the bench as the backup point guard. Argentinian rookie Manu Ginobili functioned as the backup for both Jackson and Bowen on the perimeter, and Malik Rose continued to backup both Duncan and Robinson in the post. Four-time champion Steve Kerr played few minutes, as did Kevin Willis, Danny Ferry, and Steve Smith.

The Nets’ back court remained unchanged from the previous season with All-Star Jason Kidd starting at point guard alongside shooting guard Kerry Kittles. Second year small forward Richard Jefferson stepped in to replace the departed Van Horn alongside Kenyon Martin at power forward. Due to Mutombo’s injuries, Jason Collins was the de facto starter at center.

Off the bench, Anthony Johnson played limited minutes as Kidd’s backup at point guard, and Lucious Harris remained the backup shooting guard behind Kittles. Newcomer Rodney Rogers was the backup small forward behind Jefferson, and Aaron Williams served as the third big man off the bench. Mutombo spelled Collins as the second center, and Brian Scalabrine and Tamar Slay played few minutes.

Game One: Nets 89, Spurs 101

The Spurs proved to be just as dominant as ever as they rode a steady performance by Tim Duncan to the game one victory. Though they trailed after the first quarter, San Antonio stormed back to take a decisive lead in the third quarter, buoyed by Duncan’s 24 second half points. The Nets came out shaky on the road, as Kidd and Martin combined to shoot 34% from the floor. Duncan finished with 32 points, 20 rebounds, 6 assists, and 7 blocks to lead the way for the Spurs. Kenyon Martin led New Jersey with 21 points, but the Nets faced an early 1-0 series deficit.

Game Two: Nets 87, Spurs 85

Desperate to avoid another 2-0 Finals deficit, the Nets came out aggressive and led by 10 points after the first three quarters. Although the Spurs came back to trim the lead in the fourth, Jason Kidd stepped up to score the last seven points for New Jersey, earning the franchise its first ever win in the NBA Finals. Kidd finished with a game-high 30 points, essentially carrying the Nets as Martin continued to struggle from the field. Parker scored 21 points to lead San Antonio, and Duncan was held to a relatively “tame” 19 points and 12 rebounds as the series moved to New Jersey tied at one game apiece.

Game Three: Spurs 84, Nets 79

Game three was an offensive nightmare, as both teams struggled to score in the first half–especially New Jersey, tying records with only 9 second quarter points and 30 first half points. Parker was again excellent for the Spurs with 26 points to lead the team to a 2-1 series lead in the Finals. Duncan was again efficient with 21 points, 16 rebounds, and 7 assists, and Ginobili came up big off the bench with some timely defensive plays. Kidd again struggled, making only 6/19 shots, and Martin and Kittles combining for 44 points was not enough as the Nets dropped their first game back at home.

Game Four: Spurs 76, Nets 77

Another tough shooting display saw both teams shoot under 36% for the game. The Nets took an 11-point lead into halftime but allowed it to slip away in the third. Despite failing to score from the field in the final four minutes of the fourth, New Jersey held on to a tight victory thanks to free throw shooting and a miss by Ginobili in the final possession. Kidd, Martin, and Jefferson combined for 54 points to lead the Nets, and Duncan was a lone bright spot with 23 points, 17 rebounds, and 7 blocks for the Spurs. The series now was tied again at two games apiece with one more to play in New Jersey.

Game Five: Spurs 93, Nets 83

The Spurs led after every quarter in the pivotal game five to take a crucial 3-2 series lead. Helped in large part by Steve Kerr’s clutch six points off the bench in the final period, San Antonio now headed back to Texas with a chance to clinch the NBA championship on their home floor. Duncan was again unstoppable with 29 points, 17 rebounds, and 4 blocks, and Rose and Ginobili combined for 26 points off the bench. Kidd and Jefferson combined for 48 points, but no else stepped up for the Nets as they now faced a must-win in game six.

Game Six: Nets 77, Spurs 88

Playing in what would turn out to be his final NBA game, David Robinson finally emerged to give Duncan some help. His 13 points and 17 rebounds were crucial as the Spurs an eight-point deficit after the first quarter and ran away with the victory in the final period, assisted by Stephen Jackson’s three clutch three-pointers. Duncan was masterful, nearly compiling a quadruple-double with 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists, and 8 blocks. Kidd led the Nets with 21 points and 7 assists, but Martin shot a horrific 3/23 from the field. San Antonio’s win clinched their second NBA title, a fitting send-off for “The Admiral.”

Aftermath

With his brilliance on full display, Tim Duncan was an obvious choice for the Finals MVP, the second time in his career. Despite the departure of David Robinson and Stephen Jackson, the Spurs supporting cast was firmly established, and the team would remain at the top of the Western Conference in the coming years. A miracle shot by Derek Fisher would help ruin San Antonio’s hopes of repeating, but the Spurs would again reach the NBA Finals two years later in 2005.

Though they made it halfway to winning the series, the Nets’ window of opportunity looked as though it may have closed. New Jersey started off shaky to start the 2003-04 season and fired head coach Byron Scott. The Nets would make the playoffs in the coming seasons but fail to make it past the second round despite acquiring All-Star Vince Carter. The 2003 NBA Finals is still the last time the Nets appeared in the championship series, and the franchise moved to Brooklyn in 2012.

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