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Ever-so-modest Kerr can't hide his value

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DALLAS - Forget Leo Durocher and Vince Lombardi. Nice guys do finish first. Take the San Antonio Spurs and Steve Kerr, though no one has been able to do it in these NBA playoffs.

The Spurs will open the NBA Finals at home Wednesday against the New Jersey Nets after a rousing comeback from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit against the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday. They won the Western Conference finals, 4-2.

"It was a great confidence builder," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "We've given up so many leads. It was pretty sweet to be down and come back doing the right things."

Doing the right things pretty much summed up Kerr, who isn't the luckiest player in the world, though he'll tell you he is. He saved the Spurs from a potential Game 7 by hitting shot after shot and making play after play to lead them past the NBA's only other 60-win team this season.

"I ask, 'Why me?' almost every day," Kerr said.

From anyone else it would sound insincere. But there's nothing insincere about Kerr.

"This is my 15th year in the league," Kerr said. "That's probably 15 more than I should have had, really, with the ability I was given. Things completely have gone my way throughout my career.

"First, getting to Arizona and playing for Lute Olson [after not being recruited out of high school], as well as for Phil Jackson. Playing with great players like Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan.

"I worked hard and I know I've got some ability. But I'm still here. I'm not sure why."

The Spurs know, and they're grateful.

Sometimes, there is luck involved. Popovich is a stubborn coach, a military man, and he wasn't going to play Kerr, the NBA's career leader in three-point percentage, even as his shooters began to tighten as the series lengthened.

But with point guard Tony Parker ill from food poisoning and unable to play in the second half, Popovich called on Kerr.

Kerr had been calling himself "Ted," as in Ted Williams, joking he'd been frozen by the team.

But Popovich thawed out Kerr with four minutes left in the third quarter and the Spurs trailing by 15. Kerr hit his first shot, a high-arcing baseline three-pointer. But San Antonio still trailed by 13 going into the fourth quarter.

Who knew the team that just had blown a 17-point second-half lead at home in Game 5 was about to equal the greatest comeback in conference finals history?

The Spurs were down 71-59 with 10 minutes left when Kerr swung the ball to Manu Ginobili for a three-pointer. The Mavs still were adhering to their strategy of surrounding Tim Duncan, and Kerr then sent the ball to Stephen Jackson for another three. The Spurs were down three as the Mavs went cold.

Kerr's three-pointer tied the game with 7:12 left. He gave the Spurs a lead on another three with 6:28 remaining. His fourth straight three with 5:14 left stretched their lead to eight.

"For Steve Kerr, it was not difficult at all," Popovich said. "I don't say that flippantly. The guy is there before and after practice, running and shooting until he's dripping wet. He hasn't stopped practicing every day, working every day, even though he hasn't played. Practicing, working, working. He's always ready."

Kerr sort of defines the Spurs.

There has long been a question in the NBA - actually, in all of sport - about whether teams like the Spurs can win, teams concerned as much with personal character as with talent.

The Spurs are talented, but they'll pass on talented problems. They had a chance a few years back to get Gary Payton for a bunch of reserves and turned it down. Not a Spurs kind of guy.

Popovich said he never had to have a meeting with team star David Robinson to persuade him to change his role to accommodate Duncan. Popovich said he never had to beg All-Star Duncan to go to rookie camp or minicamp.

"Life is too short to be with jerks," Popovich said. "This is a business, and it's not the most important thing in the world. But we sure spend a lot of time together.

"If you're going to do that, you may as well have people like David around who smile, win, lose or draw, whatever the weather, the city. I'm a very fortunate coach to have experienced players who are willing to do what you want them to do."

But being good guys isn't enough.

"We're not ignorant. You have to have an adequate amount of talent to get this done and be a successful team," Popovich said.

Sam Smith is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

NBA playoffs

Conference finals

(Best of seven)

Eastern Conference

Detroit vs. New Jersey

(New Jersey wins series, 4-0)

Western Conference

San Antonio vs. Dallas

(San Antonio wins series, 4-2) Game 1-Dallas 113, San Antonio 110 Game 2-San Antonio 119, Dallas 106 Game 3-San Antonio 96, Dallas 83 Game 4-San Antonio 102, Dallas 95 Game 5-Dallas 103, San Antonio 91 Game 6-San Antonio 90, Dallas 78

Finals

(Best of seven; *-if necessary)

New Jersey vs. San Antonio

Wednesday-at San Antonio, 8:30 p.m. Friday-at San Antonio, 8:30 p.m. June 8-at New Jersey, 8:30 p.m. June 11-at New Jersey, 8:30 p.m. *June 13-at New Jersey, 8:30 p.m. *June 15-at San Antonio, 8:30 p.m. *June 18-at San Antonio, 8:30 p.m.

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