Ready to toss it up at a tossup NBA finals

Wednesday, June 4th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- On the day before the last playoff series of his career, David Robinson was asked to use his 14 seasons of wisdom to predict the results of the NBA Finals.

"I'm not a prophet," the Admiral said with a chuckle. "That's not my strength there. I'm more of a teacher. I couldn't predict it if I wanted to."

Robinson had good reason to avoid an answer. For the first time since the San Antonio Spurs earned their only championship in 1999, the question of who will win the NBA title truly seems to be multiple-choice.

The Los Angeles Lakers thoroughly dominated the last three finals, flattening three overmatched Eastern Conference opponents with their distinctive flair. Their most recent victim was the New Jersey Nets, who used last summer's humbling experience to fuel their return to the finals.

But the Nets won't get revenge on the Lakers -- thanks to the Spurs, who sent the defending champions home a month early in the conference semifinals.

"Both of us have been chasing the Lakers for years," said Malik Rose, one of four Spurs left from 1999. "They won't get the satisfaction that we got from beating the Lakers, but getting a ring is the sweetest thing of all."

While New Jersey won 10 straight playoff games and earned a 10-day break, San Antonio then beat Dallas to set up an NBA Finals lacking in star power, but overflowing with tenacious players who have raised their teams above the sum of their parts.

The series is hard to predict -- and given both teams' reputations for bullying defense, it might be hard to watch at times -- but it's easy to sense the passion.

"When you spend a year thinking about how bad you felt after losing, getting to this stage is great, and it's also really hard," New Jersey's Richard Jefferson said. "We've been waiting a whole year to get a chance to redeem ourselves -- but some guys on their team have been waiting four years, or even their whole careers. There's a lot of emotion in both locker rooms. I think both teams are dying for rings."

Neither the Spurs nor the Nets are poured from the mold of a standard NBA champion, which is one reason both teams like their chances.

Both have superstars -- two-time MVP Tim Duncan for the Spurs, and point guard Jason Kidd for the Nets -- but San Antonio thrives with a lineup of castoffs, foreign stars and aging veterans, while the Nets' eclectic roster includes a seven-time All-Star who never plays.

They are two teams for the new paradigm of the NBA -- squads built around athletes and their aptitudes, not players poured into predetermined roles.

For instance, the Spurs' starting shooting guard is 6-foot-8 -- taller than their starting small forward; Kenyon Martin, the Nets' defensive stopper and leading playoff scorer, is a wiry 6-9, often relying on his athleticism and passion to defend 7-footers.

"We're similar in some ways, and not many people notice that," said Stephen Jackson, the shooting guard who played in the CBA, Australia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and New Jersey before landing with the Spurs.

"Both of these teams just have guys who play good basketball at a lot of positions. Except for probably Jason Kidd, we don't have those classic guys who play one position. We've got versatile guys, and they've got versatile guys."

The Nets haven't played since May 24 -- but they haven't lost since April 26, when Milwaukee beat them in overtime. The rest of the playoffs were almost too easy for New Jersey, with Boston and Detroit posing only intermittent challenges to their run.

Scott tried to keep his team sharp with aggressive practices, but they stuck to a fairly normal schedule instead of the second training camp sometimes employed by teams with long playoff breaks.

Will the layoff be a problem? History says it might: For instance, the Utah Jazz had a 10-day wait before the 1998 finals, and coach Jerry Sloan cited it as the biggest reason for their sluggish play early in their loss to Chicago.

Of course, the Spurs have taken a six-day break of their own since finishing off the Mavericks.

"There's no way around it," Duncan said. "You're going to have a little rust, but it's about getting back on the horse and ... getting back to the mental state you were in before the break."

The NBA Finals are the final send-off for Robinson, who will retire this summer. In addition to his leadership role on the court and his extensive humanitarian work off it, he's a 10-time All-Star, a former league MVP and a champion.

"We'd definitely like to add another championship for him, though," Rose said. "We've got plenty of guys who are still hungry, who still want that ring. But so does New Jersey. Personally, I can't wait to see it."