by Russ Bengtson

PREGAME

Gregg Popovich is smart. He also doesn’t tolerate fools—or foolish questions—lightly, which transforms the mundane ritual of the pre-game press conference (reporters ask leading questions to which they already know the answers, coaches duly respond as expected) into something a little more entertaining. Asked about his team’s early-season struggles, which have the Spurs towards the bottom of the playoff ladder, he eyes his questioner balefully before answering: “If one were given the choice, one would want the first seed. Otherwise you’d be an idiot.” He goes on from there to explain that his Spurs had won titles as a top seed, and as a lower seed, and that record isn’t really the most important thing.

He also addresses the trades—the Suns for Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers for Pau Gasol—which have recently shaken up the Western Conference, stating that he would have voided the Gasol deal if he was in the position to do so. He also addresses the matter of making trades in a more general manner, saying that if you stay with your roster and win, you’re a genius, and if you stay with your roster and lose, you’re an idiot who kept guys too long. Whatever happens this season, I don’t think anyone will be calling Gregg Popovich an idiot.

INSIDE the visitors’s locker room, metal plates engraved with last names, number and Spurs logo indicate where each player will dress. Damon Stoudamire, the newest Spur, already has one. This is a family. Tim Duncan, the most reclusive, dresses in the back with the coaches.

ON THE COURT, Stoudamire is getting some extra time in, and Robert Horry is shooting threes with an assistant coach. He misses quite a few before getting on a run starting on the right side. He makes an easy six, seven in a row. Manu Ginobili stands on the sideline, being interviewed by a group of foreign reporters. As I head up to the press room, I pass a couple who are watching Ginobili. “Ginobili,” the man says to his partner, “is he Croatian?”

WILSON Chandler is in the starting lineup for the Knicks, despite the fact that he didn’t play at all on the latest Western trip, or in the home loss to the Clippers. This will be his first NBA start.

RENALDO Balkman has tattoos on the backs of both hands that appear to be outlines of the state of Florida. Hard to tell. David Lee and Jerome James are the last two Knicks on the court for pregame.

HOWARD Stern is in the prime celebrity seat tonight. His affiliation on the celebrity cheat sheet that’s posted in the media room is “KING OF ALL MEDIA,” which seems a little excessive at this time. His girlfriend, model Beth Ostrofsky, is listed as “TV PERSONALITY.” Ouch.

ONLY two Giants in the building tonight. Former Knick Charles Oakley is also on the celebrity list. Hopefully he’s here to punch someone in the face.

DAMON Stoudamire and Manu Ginobili start for the defending champs.

FIRST QUARTER

Chandler starts off guarding likely Sixth Man of the Year Ginobili. Good luck with all that.

No scoring early. Zach Randolph fires up a straightaway three with plenty of time left on the clock, and that doesn’t make things any better. Zach’s been taking way too many threes lately. Someone should maybe mention to him that he’s one of the team’s best rebounders, and it’s not doing anyone any good when he’s pretending to be Reggie Miller. If only the Knicks had someone in that role—like a coach or something.

The scoring starts at the 9:43 mark when Chandler fouls Ginobili.

An Eddy Curry dunk off a Fred Jones re-direct at the 9:19 mark is the first field goal for either team.

The Spurs don’t get a field goal of their own until the 7:24 mark when a Fabricio Oberto layup makes it 4-3, Knicks. It’s not really a defensive struggle as much as it is a plain, old struggle.

Along with the three-pointers, Zach Randolph is adept at the ill-advised floating cross-court pass out of the double team. Manu Ginobili picks one off.

Tim Duncan corrals an offensive rebound and takes it himself all the way to the opposite three-point line, where he finds a cutting Jacque Vaughn for a layup. Pretty.

So is this: Duncan backs down Curry, kicks the ball back out, it skips around the perimeter, and winds up in the hands of Bruce Bowen in the corner. For three. Good.

Bowen’s three is bracketed by a pair of them from Fred Jones, and it’s 18-17 Spurs at the end of 1. Somewhere, Mike D’Antoni is doing anything but watching this game.

SECOND QUARTER

Fred Jones keeps the party going with another three from right in front of Penny “The Human Cigarette” Marshall.

Francisco Elson wastes no time in making his presence known—foul, foul, missed dunk, foul. All in less than a minute and a half. Impressive. Gregg Popovich rolls his eyes (presumably), and declares war on the Netherlands.

ANOTHER three for Fred Jones. Knicks lead 28-20.

Jared Jeffries catches Robert Horry looking the wrong way, drops an alley-oop right on his head. Time out, Spurs.

Bowen airballs a three, and Jeffries airballs one right back, although Z-Bo is there to put back the miss. Michael Finley follows it with a three that actually goes in.

Zach misses another three, Ginobili is called for a loose ball foul on Jeffries, and waves his hand dismissively. Good thing Joey Crawford isn’t here, or else Manu’d probably be executed.

The Spurs, they’re not good. The Knicks are doubling Duncan on the catch, and no one else can get anything going. It’s 46-30 Knicks, and the Spurs commit a 24-second violation out of a time out. It’s like the two teams have traded identities.

The Knicks lead 48-32 at the half, the Spurs have been outplayed in every way possible, and it’s safe to assume that Popovich might actually kill someone at halfime. Matt Bonner, you’re not safe.

THIRD QUARTER

Ten minutes to go in the third, Knicks lead by 18.

Eddy Curry’s attempted entry pass goes straight to Tim Duncan and Ginobili hits a jumper on the other end. Despite the Knick lead, Eddy Curry’s +/- is roughly –246.

Finley hits a three, Duncan scores over Randolph, Duncan scores again, Ginobili hits a pair of free throws, Vaughn adds another, and all of a sudden it’s 52-48.

Fred Jones stops the bleeding with his fourth trey of the night, but one-time Knick Ime Udoka comes right back with a three of his own.

The Knicks maintain a cushion for a while, but Big Shot Brob hits a three to end the quarter, and it’s 62-59 Knicks at the end of three.

FOURTH QUARTER

This is exactly what I wrote at the start of the fourth: “Justin Tuck, on the baseline, is used for a cheap standing O before the Knicks inevitable loss. Yay, Giants.”

Also on the baseline: Five or six models and a decidedly grey-haired Charles Oakley in a red velvet jacket. The one-time toughest guy in the L looks like the host of Masterpiece Theater.

Another Brob trey ties things up at 62. After a series of misses and turnovers from both sides, Brob drops a third three. 65-62, Spurs.

The Knicks, however, don’t just roll over and die. Lee hits off glass, Crawford drops a pair of threes, and Balkman gets a big dunk off a Crawford pass. Knicks go back up seven. Under five minutes they stretch it back to nine off another Crawford trey.

Finley hits a three to cut it to six. Ginobili hits a three to cut it to three. Balkman hits a layup, Duncan answers with a pair of free throws. Randolph re-enters the game for Curry after an exceptionally long break.

Finally. Balkman swishes a pair of free throws to extend the Knick lead to three with 8.5 seconds to go. On the inbounds, Finley’s fouled, and Duncan seems to think he should be shooting three. The referees disagree. Instead, the Spurs inbound again. Ginobili drives the lane, Balkman leaves Finley in front of the Knicks bench to collapse on Ginobili, Duncan adroitly cuts off Balkman’s path back, and Ginobili finds the wide-open Finley, who ties it with four-tenths of a second to go. Overtime.

OVERTIME

This time the Knicks do roll over and die. The Spurs open overtime with a 7-0 run, capped by another Finley three. Instead of a huge win, it’s another disappointing loss, and vicious booing and “FIRE ISIAH” chants rain down. Your final score is 99-93, Spurs.

POSTGAME

Popovich is, well, Popovich. “Well, we’re thrilled to get out of here with a win. We played poorly in the first half, started to make stops in the second half.” Someone asks what he told the team at halftime. Pause. “I asked them to play better.” No one does deadpan better than Pop.

Someone else asks about Manu driving to the basket on that last play of regulation when they needed a three. Pop just stares at his questioner, incredulous. “That’s what Manu does.” The questioner presses, wanting to know why he was going for two when they needed three. “I don’t even understand what you’re asking,” Pop says. “We designed [that play] for Finley to get a three.” Which of course he did.

Isiah Thomas apparently enters the interview room six minutes after the game—when all of the beatwriters are still typing—and answers questions for ONE reporter before leaving. Unbelievable.

Big Shot Brob is sporting a single bejeweled hoop earring, a look originated by Michael Jordan and later adopted by Scottie Pippen. Apparently this is a look reserved for guys with six or more rings. Exclusive company, that. Although I can’t see Bill Russell wearing a diamond-encrusted hoop.

Brob is also leaking one-liners. “The thing about basketball is there’s always a second half.” And, in some cases, overtime. Asked about his big shots at the end of the third and the start of the fourth, he’s got another one. “For me, I don’t care. I could be one of 50 and I’m still gonna shoot it.”

Tim Duncan calls up some answers of his own. “I’m just glad that we could put together a couple minutes there and figure out how to win the game.” But he’s still plenty human, signing autographs for kids long after the game has ended. In fact, he even signs a kid’s LeBron V—while it’s still on the kid’s foot.