Most of the truly remarkable sequences occur on defense. Against the Lakers, Robinson was drawn to the perimeter to guard Shaquille O'Neal, which against any other team would have left the middle open. But when O'Neal passed to Derek Fisher cutting down the lane, Duncan was there to make the block. Later O'Neal outfought Duncan for an offensive rebound, but Robinson stepped in to block O'Neal's dunk attempt. "You have to rethink the rules when you play those guys," says Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "You get by one of them, and the next thing you know you're facing his clone."
Even though many of the players and coaches who have gone up against him say that Duncan plays as if he has been in the league for years, there are still a few things Robinson can teach him. Before most games Robinson tutors Duncan on the favorite moves of the power forward he'll be facing that night, showing him how to position himself on defense against the Minnesota Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett or how to protect the ball from the patented strip move of the Utah Jazz's Karl Malone. Duncan has helped Robinson as well, not in technique but in temperament. "I tend to want everything right now," Robinson says, clenching his fist. "I want to be completely over my back problems right now. I want to win and accomplish everything right away. Tim brings that calm perspective to things. Watching him reminds me that there's a lot to be said for patience, for not expecting so much of yourself so quickly. You don't often say this about a rookie, but he's got a lot of wisdom."
One of the few questions about Duncan as a pro prospect was whether he was physical enough. He built a reputation as a finesse player at Wake Forest, and NBA opponents wasted no time in finding out whether they could push, grab or elbow him out of his normal style. " Charles Oakley put a hard foul on him right off the bat the first time we played the Knicks in preseason," says Johnson. "Tim handled it fine. He didn't get upset, and he didn't let it make him less aggressive. That's when I knew that that kind of stuff wasn't going to work against him."
Duncan has since grabbed 22 rebounds against the Chicago Bulls' Dennis Rodman and has stood up to the muscle of Malone, but he knows he will be tested all season. "I think everybody wants to see what you'll take and what you won't take," Duncan says. "You have to accept that and make sure you don't back down."
Robinson, meanwhile, is trying to pass his own test. He's striving to get back to the level of play that made him the league's MVP in 1995. His back pain, which grew so bad last year that he couldn't bend over the sink to brush his teeth, is gone, and his statistics suggest that he has returned to full strength. Robinson knows he hasn't. "Physically I'm fine," he says, "but in terms of confidence in my back, I'm not there yet. There are plays I would've made without thinking two years ago that now make me wonder, Can I really do this? It's the mental part that I'm battling through."
Last week Robinson tipped in his own missed layup at the buzzer to beat Minnesota. While everyone congratulated him on scoring the game-winner, Robinson thought about how, if he had been his old self, he never would've missed the first shot because he would have been confident enough to go up and dunk the ball. "They are little things that most people might not notice," he says, "but I know that until I can do all those little things, I won't be 100 percent back to normal. Every game I feel a little bit better, though, a little bit more confident."
Even at less than his best, Robinson has teamed with Duncan to transform the Spurs. It doesn't take a genius to understand San Antonio's first theory of motion: When two 7-foot forces are applied equally, the rate of a team's improvement can approach the speed of light.