"I guess I underestimated Tim Duncan." Suns coach Danny Ainge
ruffled his hair last Thursday night as he uttered that painful
admission. Minutes earlier Duncan, the Spurs' 7-foot rookie, had
dismantled Phoenix on its own floor in Game 1 of the teams'
first-round playoff series by scoring 32 points and grabbing 10
rebounds in a 102-96 San Antonio win. Facing single coverage,
Duncan tortured the Suns' forwards in the final quarter with
twisting bank shots, deadly pull-up jumpers and dazzling ball
handling that included a between-the-legs move. "He looked like
a point guard out there," said Phoenix forward Antonio McDyess
In the fourth quarter Duncan shot 7 of 9 from the field and
scored 12 straight points for the Spurs. Hot Rod Williams, who
had the misfortune of attempting to guard him, had seen only one
other rookie take over a game like that. "It was like something
Jordan would do," Williams said.
Yet, in the locker room after his finest hour, Duncan looked as
though he had just watched paint dry. "I was only taking what
they gave me," he deadpanned.
Other Spurs attempted to coax a smile out of Duncan. They told
him they were going to fill his shoes with cement to ensure that
his feet stayed on the ground. "But Tim is kind of hard to
tease," said guard Vinny Del Negro. "He's so level. A flat line."
Perhaps that's why, when the Suns swarmed Duncan in the post
with two pesky bodies in Game 2, he never looked flustered, even
though he struggled to kick the ball out and committed six
turnovers. Duncan finished with 16 points and 10 boards, but
Phoenix won 108-101. He reacted to this colossal letdown as
though he had just finished sorting out the socks in his drawer.
"We made mistakes, and we'll do better next time," the
22-year-old Duncan said.
But it isn't that simple for San Antonio. The heat was on the
Spurs as they headed into Game 3 on Monday night (a 100-88 San
Antonio victory), because unlike Phoenix, which wants to
advance, San Antonio must, or face more questions about its
toughness. "This idea of us being soft is totally false," says
coach and general manager Gregg Popovich. "These players aren't
like ones in the past. They bang every night."
Nothing catastrophic is planned if the Spurs lose. Popovich will
continue to pull double duty next season. Because the Spurs are
over the salary cap, no blockbuster free-agent signings are on
the horizon. David Robinson will continue to be the team's
leaderat least until the kid has been around a little longer.
There's no doubt, though, that the Spurs' future lies squarely
with Duncan, who summed up the series' importance like a man
waiting for water to boil. "I know how it works," he said.
"You're a hero one day and blamed for everything the next. I've
never gotten too high or too low. It only messes you up."
Issue date: May 4, 1998