A half hour after Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers had plunged a near-fatal dagger into the heart of his MVP season on Sunday, Tim Duncan, like most NBA superstars, sought succor from his posse, which numbered all of three: his wife, Amy; his business manager, Marc Scott; and Scott's girlfriend, Jove. Wearing blue jeans and a cream-colored shirt unbuttoned over a T-shirt, Duncan looked as if he were going to a beach in his native St. Croix, but his dour countenance suggested otherwise. He put a large hand on the small head of a young fan, then, limping slightly, walked down a deserted hallway of San Antonio's Alamodome with his crew. It is May, and it has become Duncan's destiny to perform brilliantly in May, but not brilliantly enough to get his Spurs past the Lakers, who took a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference semifinal series with an 87-85 victory.
What Duncan really needed was a more effective posse on the court. As L.A., which trailed 84-74 with 4:56 left, crept back into the game behind the celestial talents of Bryant, Duncan faced a dilemma: Should he force the issue by going at 7'1" Shaquille O'Neal and 6'10" Robert Horry? Or should he do the fundamentally sound thing and find open teammates? He chose the latter, putting up only two shots in the fourth period while point guard Tony Parker and reserves Antonio Daniels and Danny Ferry misfired repeatedly. (They were a combined one for 12 down the stretch.) With 3.2 seconds left and the Lakers leading by two, the Spurs' final play was left to the quarter-backing of 39-year-old Terry Porter. But he slipped at the top of the key before shoveling a pass to Duncan, whose awkward 20-footer only grazed the rim. Duncan stared at the basket for a second, then jogged to midcourt, where he lifted his jersey over his head as he took a funereal walk toward the Spurs' locker room, his 30 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and four blocked shots having gone for naught.
There is much frustration in Duncan's world these days courtesy of the Lakers, who swept the Spurs by an average of 22.3 points in the conference finals last season. Double-and sometimes triple-teamed on Sunday by an L.A. squad that generally likes to play straight-up man, unable to get off his turn-to-the-middle jump hook from the left block, Duncan must have felt, metaphorically speaking, as if he were on an island, so futile were his teammates' efforts to provide assistance. (That is disconcerting even for a guy from an island.) At 36 and hobbled by a herniated disk, David Robinson offered only token support. After the game Duncan's unproductive fourth quarter (three points, all on free throws) was the major topic of discussion, along with the heroics of Bryant, whose leaping left-handed rebound of a Derek Fisher miss and subsequent right-handed follow shot over Robinson with 5.1 seconds left proved to be the game-winner.
The loss was yet another hard lesson for Duncan as he approached the end of his fifth season. Here's a surprising fact: Duncan turned 26 last month and is 10 months younger than Allen Iverson, who, it would seem, could gain so much by sitting on Duncan's knee and soaking up his tropical wisdom. Still, there is something about Duncan's style that, even as it mandates universal respect, draws mostly restrained praise. "I'm not saying this to be critical," says Lakers assistant coach Tex Winter, about to be critical, "but the one thing about him is that he's fundamental to the point that he's predictable."
Also predictable, by now, is San Antonio's failure to produce a key victory in May, which would have squelched any lingering doubts about Duncan's worthiness as MVP, even though he did everything this season (25.5 points per game, 12.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.5 blocks) save refurbish the limestone on the Alamo. Lakers coach Phil Jackson said he put extra pressure on Duncan because he is "a willing passer." Did the sly Jackson mean too willing, as in afraid to shoot? He didn't elaborate. Bryant said that Duncan is "the kind of player who's not going to force things." That was surely an innocent comment-even a compliment—but it amounted to the same thing as Jackson's implication: Duncan, unlike Bryant, had failed to snatch the game by the neck and make it his own. Duncan knew it too. "I turned down a couple of looks earlier than I should have," he said. "I was trying to find the open people, but I should have just been a little more selfish." Duncan had been more selfish in last Friday's Game 3, hoisting nine shots in the fourth period but making only four in a 99-89 defeat.
Bryant, by contrast, had shot abysmally on Friday but connected on all five of his shots in the final period. (He finished with 31 points to Duncan's 28.) And we may have yet to see the best of Kobe. His boundless talent, timing and bravado haven't been seen since—well, since you know who—and it is no longer a stretch to compare the 23-year-old Bryant to number 23. Duncan and his mates probably should have known their home stand would not be pleasant when, after the Lakers' 88-85 Game 2 loss, Bryant rubbed his hands together and told the press, "This is where the fun begins, fellas." What will haunt the Spurs about last weekend is not that they played weak D on Bryant; it's that in most cases a solid defender like Bruce Bowen was draped all over him when he worked his magic and that Kobe seemed to drop from heaven for that rebound-and-follow-shot on Sunday.
Afterward, Bryant even concluded an interview early to console a youngster who was spilling saline all over his Spurs jersey. "Don't worry, my man," he told the kid, stopping the flood of tears. "You still got a great team. Keep on rooting for them." So this is Kobe at playoff time: He breaks hearts with 23 fourth-quarter points in two games, then plays guardian angel in T-Dunc's backyard.
Seven years younger than O'Neal, Bryant has become the straight man to Shaq in this delightful purple-and-gold traveling carnival. Throughout the series O'Neal, frustrated by his injuries and miffed at some public criticism by Jackson about his lack of hustle, was either silent or serving up surreal tidbits from Shaq World, dispensed, of course, in Shaq Speak. "I'm used to rolling on chrome dubs, but now I have to get used to 18-inch aluminums," he said of his aching feet and ankles. Asked after Game 4 about the estimable pairing of him and Bryant, Shaq conjured up yin and yang, Frick and Frack and, of course, Superman and Batman.
Throughout the season O'Neal—who, you probably realize by now, has a superhero fixation—has referred to his teammates as "my superfriends." Well, he has one superfriend anyway, and, as of Sunday, that seemed more than enough to trump one MVP and his cast of mere mortals.