EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is nothing if not a man of convictions. He always sticks with whatever he believes works, even if something else might work better at that time.
One of his convictions in the postseason is that Steve Kerr, a member of four NBA title teams, shouldn't play regularly, but Kerr has displayed a knack for coming through at the most important moments. The latest manifestation may have given the Spurs a big boost toward a championship.
Kerr, the 15-year veteran and the NBA's all-time three-point shooting percentage leader, had not played until late in the fourth quarter last night. But he hit two clutch shots in the final three minutes, including a three-pointer, to give the Spurs a 93-83 win over the New Jersey Nets and a 3-2 lead in the NBA Finals.
Game 6 will be tomorrow night in San Antonio.
Kerr, who had only played two minutes in the previous four Finals games, made the most of his nine minutes last night, making a three-pointer and a medium-range jumper in the final three minutes on the way to a six-point performance.
"That's kind of my role," said Kerr, 37. "I'm not a big scorer. I'm somebody who is supposed to spread the defense out and keep it honest. I've got the greatest job on Earth. I sit on the bench, I come in for six minutes, I hit a couple of shots, and then I come into the interview room."
Kerr scored 12 points in the second half of the Spurs' clinching win in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals against the Dallas Mavericks, after being anchored to the bench for most of the series.
And oddly enough, his fourth-quarter performance came six years to the day from when he hit a big three-pointer in Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals to clinch the title for the Chicago Bulls over the Utah Jazz.
Said Popovich: "Kerr was fantastic. We got in a little bit of foul trouble there and we put Steve out in a couple of situations where they have to make a couple decisions, double-teaming wise. Obviously, he was a huge factor down the stretch."
"Steve Kerr is the definition of a veteran," said Tim Duncan, who had 29 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and four blocked shots.
"He doesn't play for games in a row and then he hits shots. That guy is amazing. When you get a guy who shoots the ball like that, you love to see him on the floor. Every time I throw him the ball, I want to see him shoot it because I know it's going in."
The Spurs displayed great finishing kicks in each of the four quarters, going, in order, 10-4, 7-0, 13-3 and 15-7 to close out each of the quarters.
"I don't know why we did [close out quarters well]. My only worry is why we gave them back at the beginning of the next quarter," Duncan said.
And, in what amounted to an explosion in this series, the Spurs not only scored more than 90 points, but they also shot 48 percent from the field, while the Nets hit just 35 percent of their field goal attempts.
The Nets battled gamely throughout the night, especially with their frontcourt leader Kenyon Martin, playing terribly in the wake of an illness that left him weak. Martin scored just four points with nine rebounds, and committed eight turnovers, including three in a critical stretch of the fourth quarter.
But San Antonio met every New Jersey thrust with a parry of its own, which wasn't all that difficult since the Nets could muster little offense from anyone other than Jason Kidd, who had 29 points, but only three in the fourth quarter.
And the point guard's scoring was inconsistent, as he scored big in the first and third quarters, and was under wraps for most of the second and fourth.
Whatever chance the Nets may have should have evaporated when Duncan hit a seemingly impossible turnaround from the baseline with 6:24 to go. Duncan, who launched the shot over Jefferson, released it from behind the glass, and the ball danced on the rim for a beat, then dropped through, putting San Antonio ahead 76-67 and theoretically putting the hammer down on the win.
But the Nets answered back with a 9-2 run of their own, as Jefferson scored on a three-point play at the 6:05 mark, then hit two free throws 30 seconds later after a dunk by Rose for the Spurs. Then, Aaron Williams scored on a put-back jumper, followed by a Jefferson drive, and Continental Airlines Arena was rocking in the Nets' final home game of the season.
The Spurs, however, answered back with a clinching run. Duncan hit two free throws, then, off a timeout, Kerr popped a three-pointer from the right wing with 3:02 left, after he picked off a pass from Martin. On the ensuing possession, Manu Ginobili intercepted a pass by Martin and took it the length of the floor for a layup and an 85-76 San Antonio lead.
Jefferson hit two free throws, but after David Robinson picked off a pass by Martin, Kerr hit an 18-footer with 1:42 left to slam the door.
The Nets' chances in general are now dramatically slimmer, if history is an indicator. No team, since the league adopted a 2-3-2 format for the NBA Finals in 1985, has ever won both games 6 and 7 on the road.
New Jersey Nets vs. San Antonio Spurs
Best of seven; *-if necessary
Spurs lead 3-2
TV:Chs. 2, 7
Game 1:San Antonio, 101-89
Game 2:New Jersey, 87-85
Game 3: San Antonio, 84-79
Game 4:New Jersey, 77-76
Last night:New Jersey, 93-83
Tomorrow:at S.A., 8:30 p.m.
*Wednesday:at S.A., 8:30 p.m.