? Duncan "closes out" well on shooters, something big men rarely do. That means he charges out quickly to cover opponents on the perimeter but not so quickly that he allows them to go by him.
? Duncan is an immovable object on defense, not in terms of sheer bulk, like O'Neal, but in his ability to resist fakes. In the six games of the Dallas series he had 18 blocks and only 22 personal fouls, an enviable ratio for any big man. Watch for encounters near the basket between Duncan and Kidd, who loves to take it hard to the hoop.
Until this postseason the major blotch on Duncan's r�sum� involved his performances against the Lakers, which included seven losses in eight postseason games in the previous two years. Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson helpfully suggested to the Spurs that their 1998-99 championship should bear an asterisk because it was a strike-shortened season; O'Neal, MVP of the last three Finals, likewise sniffed at Duncan's regular-season awards, strongly implying that the important hardware is handed out in June. In this year's Western Conference semifinal, though, Duncan averaged 28.0 points and 11.8 rebounds against the Lakers, and San Antonio's blood-lessly efficient 110-82 victory at LA. in Game 6 replaced that blotch with a gold star.
Beyond his free throw shooting, what blemishes are now evident in the game of a player before whose name the words fundamentally sound have been permanently attached? Backup center Kevin Willis, who has spent 18 seasons with eight teams and who engages Duncan in practice-session wars, considered the question for a full minute. "Frankly," he said, "I'm baffled. Can't find anything." The Nets were equally baffled, though perhaps they feared divulging their plan for D-ing up T.D. "Free throws is about it," said Martin, who will spend considerable time pressing his tattoos into Duncan's epidermis.
Surely there must be flaws, so we set out, Diogenes-like, to turn a lantern on them. The search wasn't particularly fruitful. Spurs reserve guard Steve Kerr, who won three titles with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s and another with San Antonio in '99, was the only respondent to answer quickly, saying, "I think he could improve a little with his left hand." (You must understand that Kerr wants to be a coach someday—he'll be a good one—and is therefore predisposed to nitpicking.) Spurs forward Malik Rose said he couldn't think of any flaws, then snapped his fingers. "I got it," he said. "He can't shoot his bank shot from the right side as well as the left."
David Robinson, who is in his final season as Duncan's in-the-paint playmate, shrugged his shoulders and said, "I guess you could say he could improve his jumping ability. But, ultimately, what's the difference? He gets every rebound that comes into his hands and dunks over people."
Dallas forward Eduardo Najera, who was called upon to guard Duncan from time to time in the Western final despite being four inches smaller, laughed at die question. "He can go left, he can go right, he can spin, he can back you in," Najera said. "You think about pushing him out, but now he's hitting that midrange shot all the time. All you can say is that he's not a great three-point shooter." To which Mavericks assistant coach Avery Johnson, a former Spurs teammate of Duncan's, added, "If Tim starts making threes, we can all go home." (Before the Finals, Duncan had attempted only 10 treys in the postseason, all of them clock beaters, and made none.)
Raef LaFrentz, who guarded Duncan the majority of time in the Western final, believes that he is the most "fundamentally sound inside player in the world." Said LaFrentz, "Any small mistake, any lapse in your thinking, he will make you pay. Some great players, like Shaq, will take a possession or two off. Tim never does. If I had to [point to] something, it's that he doesn't have a lefthanded jump hook. But, then, I can't think of any bigs in the league who can do a lot of things with their opposite hand. Including me."
Duncan, predictably, reacted with wide-eyed surprise when it was suggested to him that he doesn't have a lot to work on. "Nobody is consistent enough to stop working," said Duncan. "For me, Number 1, obviously, is my free throw shooting. Number 2 is extending my range. I'm very hesitant to shoot outside of my comfort zone, which is about 18 feet. Some guys talked about my left hand? Well, they're right. But I'm weird in that respect. I go through seasons when all I do is go left and finish left, but this year I haven't done it at all. I'm just not comfortable with it, and I've got to get back to it."
Duncan said that from the moment he picked up a basketball in his native St. Croix he's been—yes—fundamentally sound. "That's what's always worked for me," he said. "I don't think I consciously set out to be that kind of player, but maybe I realized right away that guys would have more athletic ability than me."