Finger points way to Bullets' storming finale

Birmingham's revival bodes well for climax to basketball season
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The Independent Online

If the Birmingham Bullets coach, Mike Finger, could extract the magic potion which has transformed his season over the past month, he would bottle it for transport back to the States where he returns next week. The elixir could be ideal for his next job, although as he and his wife, Susie, prepare to return to Iowa for the birth of their first child, coaching will not be high on Finger's agenda after tomorrow.

Finger, 34 today, said: "It's not like I'm 65 years old and going back home to retire by the lake. We have just made a decision that, in this particular time in our lives, it's time to go back to the States.

"Who knows? Maybe sometime down the road I might even return to this country if there was an opportunity for me."

Finger's CV will be all the more impressive following Bullets' storming climax to the season. Despite finishing only third in the southern conference they dispatched the northern runners-up, Sheffield Sharks, in the quarter-finals and the southern champions, London Towers, in the semis. He puts the revival down to a simple improvement in the game's fundamentals. "It's an old adage that defence wins championships, but there's a lot of truth to it."

It is certainly true that the intimidating defence and rebounding of Shawn Jamison, Justin Phoenix, Clive Allen, the former Manchester Giant Emiko Etete and Fabulous Flournoy held Sheffield and London close to 20 points below their regular season average. But Finger's response after their thumping 60-53 win over Towers might have been closer to the mark. "Basically, I suspect a bunch of very talented players woke up to the fact they were going to finish a long season with absolutely nothing to show for it."

Flournoy agrees with that assessment. Demoted to the A team at the start of the season, Flournoy regained his place after injury to Corey Jackson. Nigel Lloyd, Joel Burns and his other team-mates worked on developing Flournoy's game beyond being just a defensive specialist and his form has been a revelation in Birmingham's revival.

Bronx-born Flournoy is determined Bullets will not fall at the final hurdle: "We won't let it slip. Since day one of the season we've had a great team, the most athletic in the league. But we looked for every possible excuse for losing.

"Either we couldn't get on out on the court, or we were butting heads with the coach or it was injuries. We dropped our heads, pouted, and always had an excuse. We finally woke up to the fact it was getting us nowhere. So we had a team meeting, just the players, and talked it through. We were in the play-offs, it was time to stop pointing the finger at each other when things went wrong and point it at ourselves."

The extra edge to this final is provided by Finger and his opposite number at Manchester, Nick Nurse. His former room-mate at college is in the frame to replace him at Bullets next season. Bullets have won both their previous championship finals, under Nurse in 1996 and then in Finger's debut season three years ago. This week Bullets' owner, Craig Bown, named Nurse as the man he wants to replace Finger and also hopes to tempt Giants' former Bullet, Tony Dorsey, back to the NEC. The Giants' coach refused to rule himself out despite a "hands off" warning from Manchester's general manager, Jay Goldberg, to Bown.

Nurse can also improve his CV. Despite winning the Uni-ball League Trophy last year, so far this season they have lost in the finals of the National Cup and Trophy.

"I hope that will increase our hunger," said Nurse. Not since Portsmouth in 1988 has a team reached three major finals and lost them all.

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