Tim Duncan, the youngest member of the San Antonio Spurs, was the unquestioned team leader on Saturday night.
So, with 3.5 seconds remaining and the Spurs trailing the Utah Jazz by a bucket, there was little question who would get the ball. All 26,572 paying customers in the Alamodome knew the play drawn up during back-to-back timeouts was for the kid.It was the type of situation upon which legends are built and Rookie of the Year honors are solidified.
Sure enough, the Spurs got Duncan the ball. He put a fake on the reigning NBA MVP, Karl Malone, and drew a foul with six-tenths of a second remaining. All he had to do was sink two free throws to send the game pitting the Midwest Division's two best teams into overtime.
He calmly stepped to the line and, well, he missed. The ball was on line but glanced harmlessly off the front of the rim. Duncan may be like Superman on the court, but if so, free-throw shooting is his kryptonite.
After Duncan missed the second one on purpose so his team could attempt a last second tip-in, the Jazz had survived with a 79-77 victory.
Utah improved to 37-15 on the year, while San Antonio fell 11/2 games behind the Jazz at 36-17.
"It was a classic Jazz/Spurs game," said former Spur and current Jazzman Antoine Carr.
Classic? Probably not. Neither team shot the ball well, and both teams turned the ball over in key situations.
While it may not have been classic, however, it was a typical, low-scoring, physical Jazz/Spurs battle. For much of the game it looked like the first team to score 80 points would be declared the winner - but then neither team got there.
"We didn't play very well," said Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek. "We didn't shoot the ball well, we turned it over too much. Some of it was their doing, some of it was ours. But ugly or not, it's a win."
Utah, the best shooting team in the league, shot just 37.9 percent from the field. John Stockton, a 54 percent shooter on the year, was 0-for-6, while fellow point guard Howard Eisley went 2-for-8.
The Spurs, even without all-star center David Robinson (sore right knee), had the height advantage with a pair of 7-footers in Duncan and Will Perdue. They didn't allow the Jazz to get many chances inside.
The Spurs "are tough due to those big guys underneath," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "You can't go inside on them and if you don't make your shots from the perimeter then you're in trouble. We turned the ball over too many times and were lucky to get out of there with a win tonight."
The Jazz led most of the way and seemed to have the game well in hand midway through the final quarter. A 17-foot Karl Malone jumper with 5:51 to go gave Utah a 72-60 lead. But the Spurs chipped away. Jaren Jackson - who had missed all eight of his shots through three quarters - nailed a 3-pointer with 2:05 remaining to cut the gap to two, 77-75.
Malone made a pair of free throws with 38 seconds left to put the Jazz back up by four, only for Duncan to answer nine seconds later with a 12-foot bank shot over the Mailman.
Malone missed a forced 15-footer with the shot clock about to expire with five seconds left, setting up Duncan's final free throw attempts.
Said Malone, "(Duncan) is a real player. He makes everyone around him better. It's refreshing to see a guy come in and just play the game."
Malone led the Jazz with 24 points and 13 boards, while Hornacek scored 11 and Shandon Anderson netted 10 off the bench.
Despite the loss, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich seemed genuinely pleased.
"No losses are easy, but I thought our guys were awesome tonight - just flat out awesome," he said. "They guys haven't quit all year. There was nothing else they could have done."
Except make a couple of free throws in the final second.
The Jazz returned home Saturday night. They have a pair of home games this week - against the Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns - before kissing their families goodbye for the better part of March. They'll play 12 road games next month, including two extended trips east.