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The Old Guard The Spurs rolled into the conference finals with four unsung veterans manning the backcourt

The San Antonio Spurs had suffered a rare playoff loss, to the
Dallas Mavericks in Game 4 of their Western Conference
semifinals, when a TV reporter approached San Antonio point guard
Terry Porter for a locker-room postmortem. The reporter lifted
his microphone, a grip fired up a minicam, and Porter raised an
eyebrow as well-arched as one of his three-point shots. "Got some
unfinished business here," he said, gesturing at his
still-to-be-knotted tie and unzipped pants.

Whether parceling out passes or sound bites, the 38-year-old
Porter exercises uncommon patience and control. So do his
compatriots in the Spurs' backcourt, fellow graybeards Avery
Johnson (36) and Steve Kerr (35), and the youngster of the group,
Antonio Daniels (26). Just when the NBA playoffs were beginning
to morph into a pageant of flashy young individuals, this
workmanlike collective of guards forgot to follow the script.
They've expertly counterbalanced San Antonio's inside powers, Tim
Duncan and David Robinson, and have softened the impact of the
right-shoulder separation suffered in Game 1 by Derek Anderson,
the team's best backcourt creator. Thus did the Spurs claim a
105-87 victory in the Alamodome on Monday and complete a 4-1
Riverwalk past the Mavericks.

For most of the season Daniels, Johnson, Kerr and Porter have
toiled in the shadows of their towering seven-foot teammates,
Duncan and Robinson, and of Anderson, with his sorties from the
wing. Even if Anderson returns in time to engage the Los Angeles
Lakers in the conference finals, L.A. guard Kobe Bryant is sure
to outdazzle his counterparts in the San Antonio backcourt.
Still, the archives of playoffs past tell of many guards who
made outsized contributions late in their careers, including
Calvin Murphy, who at 32 helped the Houston Rockets take out
Magic Johnson's Lakers in a 1981 miniseries, and Maurice Cheeks,
who at 33 led the New York Knicks past Larry Bird's Boston
Celtics in '90.

Veteran guards are crucial in the postseason, when there's a
premium on mental toughness and ball control. "The tempo in the
playoffs may feel slower to a Minnesota [San Antonio's
first-round victim] or a Dallas because they're built as
offensive machines," says Johnson. "But we're playing the way
we've played all season."

On offense, that means not trying to create anything until the
big men have had a chance to produce. By halftime of the Spurs'
104-90 victory in Game 3, Duncan and Robinson had each rung up a
double double. Small wonder that, for the series, the guards had
gotten good enough looks to sink 19 of 44 three-point shots.
Still, the San Antonio backcourt receives its greatest boost from
those big men on defense. Knowing that Duncan and Robinson are
behind them, the guards can jam the three-point arc and funnel
ball handlers to the baseline, where opponents are left to the
tender mercies of what Kerr calls "14 feet of humanity." That
helps explain why the Mavs, 45.9% shooters on the season, shot
only 38.4% in the conference semis. At both ends the Spurs go
about their business with a Prussian discipline. Says Robinson,
"Losing Derek made us even more aware of what we have to do."

No one better knows what to do than Porter. Never mind that he's
still hunting for a title despite two trips to the NBA Finals
with the Portland Trail Blazers. Brad Greenberg, who was in
charge of player personnel during six of Porter's 10 years with
the Blazers, calls him "as close to being an X like the X on the
blackboard as a coach can ask for." After Johnson suffered a
left- thigh contusion in mid-December and his replacement,
Daniels, was slowed by a strained right knee in January, the man
his teammates call Fossil took over at the point, and San Antonio
has gone 40-11 since.

Kerr had to play three-on-three with other reserves after
practice to stay in shape for much of this season because he
couldn't get off the bench. But he remains the most accurate
three-point shooter in NBA history, and his career playoff
assists-to-turnover ratio is a staggering 3.7 to 1. After a
flagrant foul by the Mavericks' Juwan Howard in Game 1 sidelined
Anderson for at least three weeks, Kerr said he'd been working on
a distinctly Andersonian move, the windmill dunk. "Yeah," said
Spurs forward Sean Elliott. "Then he rolls over and hits the
snooze button."

Daniels is the one San Antonio player who can occasionally rival
Anderson's moves during waking moments. This season he has become
a 40.4% three-point shooter too, which has helped make the team's
inside-out style even more effective. Daniels's steep learning
curve is due in part to regular mentoring sessions over lunch
with Johnson.

If there's an unusual professionalism to the way the four have
discharged their committee assignments, it may be because each
struggled on his way to the Spurs. Johnson wasn't drafted and got
waived by two NBA teams. No Division I school recruited Porter,
who played for then NAIA Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and only three
pursued Kerr, who landed the last scholarship in Arizona's 1983
recruiting class. The Vancouver Grizzlies, who selected Daniels
with the fourth pick in the 1997 draft, gave up on him after a
year. More than that, however, each has had to cope with sobering
personal loss. Daniels's older brother, Chris, died of cardiac
arrhythmia at age 22, while Antonio was still a college junior.
Johnson and Porter have lost both parents during their NBA
careers. Says Kerr, whose father, Malcolm, was assassinated in
Beirut in 1984, "Experiences like that definitely make people
mature faster than they would otherwise."

Against the Lakers in the conference finals, the Spurs' guard
corps will probably subcontract the task of guarding Bryant to
the 6'8" Elliott, while Duncan and Robinson hope two beat one in
the post, as they did in a playoff sweep in 1999, the only other
time San Antonio has met Shaquille O'Neal-led L.A. in the
postseason. Indeed, the Spurs have beaten Los Angeles in 10 of
their last 15 meetings. San Antonio's failure to sweep Dallas
increased the possibility that Anderson will convalesce in time
to face the Lakers in a Game 6 or 7. "Another day helps," Porter
said after Saturday's loss. "Not that we were trying to lose a
game to get Derek back."

Clearly, however, when you're Porter's age and still looking for
a ring, you learn to bring a bit of Job to the job.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO AGELESS Johnson, 36, rose to the challenge against Dallas.