The San Antonio Spurs exude an air of quiet professionalism, suggesting a team of diligent stay-after-practice drudges striving to get the most out of their ability. From time to time they try too hard to play perfectly, thinking instead of reacting, and allow double-digit leads to slip away. But those close to the Spurs also know them as loosey-goosey and fun-loving, inclined to roll their eyes at the good-little-worker-bees image.
Put simply, the San Antonio Spurs are their 7-foot power forward, Tim Duncan. His character, intelligence and disposition run through this team as surely as the San Antonio River winds through the heart of the Alamo City. "Tim sets the tone," reserve forward Danny Ferry said before Game 4 of a Western Conference final in which the Spurs defeated the Dallas Mavericks four games to two. "The work ethic, the way he's always improving—those things provide a model." A few minutes later, as forward Bruce Bowen stood at the baseline doing an interview, Duncan peppered Bowen's back with bounce passes. When Bowen was finished, he and Duncan happily hacked each other for the next few minutes in a game of one-on-one. "Now and then," said assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo, " Tim Duncan knows how to be a goofball."
It's a safe bet that the goofball Duncan will not be on prominent display against the New Jersey Nets in the Finals. Poised for a run at the second title of his six-year career after winning consecutive MVP awards, he stands alone at the NBA mountaintop—where he would no doubt prefer to wear sandals, an untucked shirt and a look that says he could live without all the fuss. Even when the Mavs limited his effectiveness, "holding" Duncan to an average of 20.7 points and 15.3 rebounds in the final three games after he had put up 35.3 and 18.0 in the first three, it was because they double-, triple-and sometimes quadruple-teamed him, thus providing his teammates with jump shots that were frighteningly unimpeded. (And frightening is the correct word, considering how often they passed them up to jam the ball in to Duncan.)
With the Texas shootout continuing while the Nets were cooling their heels-after sweeping the Detroit Pistons, they would be idle for 11 days before Game 1 on Wednesday—the excellence of the 27-year-old Duncan has been the most sustained theme of this year's playoffs. True, Nets point guard Jason Kidd, with his baseline-to-baseline dashes, impending free agency and rumors of his possible move to San Antonio, will grab a share of the Finals spotlight. But Duncan has emerged as the postseason's principal protagonist, a role played the past three seasons by the Los Angeles Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal.
Consequently, this has been a quieter postseason. We'll get no trash talk from T.D. or from his toe-the-line teammates. Even Duncan's dunkin' has a tameness about it. "He's not throwing behind-the-back passes, he's not doing tomahawk jams, he's not doing anything that's very flashy," says New Jersey coach Byron Scott. "He's just a very unassuming guy who goes about his job, and the next thing you know he's got 23 points and 20 rebounds, like it's a normal day at the job."
Duncan's only obvious flaw is his free throw shooting (71.0% during the regular season, 674% in the playoffs), but that stands out partly because every other aspect of his game is so good. In contrast to the Big Scene Stealer, Duncan works his magic almost invisibly. Most superstars have a physical attribute that clearly explains their mastery—O'Neal's earth-moving mass, Kidd's Energizer Bunny stamina, Kobe Bryant's quickness, Kevin Garnett's pogo-stick leaping ability. But Duncan doesn't seem to be stronger or quicker or more explosive than the average player; the prosaic economy of his game is, paradoxically, its most distinctive characteristic. Neither does he have anything conspicuous that he gets away with, such as Patrick Ewing's palm dribble or the shoulder-dipping clear-out that drives Shaq's detractors to distraction. As Carlesimo puts it, Duncan is "the most fundamentally sound player since...since...maybe ever."
The broad outlines of Duncan's success are obvious. After Shaq, he is the league's most reliable low-post scorer, but his menu of jumpers (face-up and turnaround) and jump hooks (from either block) is more varied than O'Neal's and a threat from greater range. "Tim's moves are one thing," says Ferry, "but what makes him special are his countermoves, the kind that [former Boston Celtic] Kevin McHale had. You stop him one way, he's got two backup ways to get it done." Duncan's defense (he's been a first-team all-league defender in each of his six seasons) mirrors his offense: dependable, understated and, of course, fundamentally sound. To get at the essence of Duncan's game it's imperative to see how well he does the little things. To wit:
?In the Spurs' half-court offense, he almost never gives up his dribble early in the possession while waiting for double and triple teams to come at him. He waits, patiently holding the ball out of reach, eyes up, then makes impeccable decisions. (On occasion, though, he's too generous: A somewhat forced attempt from Duncan, a 54.1% shooter in the playoffs, is better than a good one from any other Spur.) If defenders don't adequately corral him, Duncan will step through for a leaning jumper, often drawing a foul in the process. Or he'll use his dribble to get into the lane.
? Duncan is both nimble enough and accurate enough shooting from the outside to be a big part of the pick-and-roll offense. He'll set up on one side of the blocks, then cut across diagonally to set a high screen for a guard, usually Tony Parker. Duncan doesn't have three-point range but positions himself in a spot around the elbow where he must be guarded.
?Unlike many big men, such as Shaq, Duncan is also a big part of the pick-and-roll defense. He can "show"—-jump at the ball handler, then retreat and cover his manor he can leave his man and frantically double-team the ball. The Nets will test that ability. They're certain to use Kenyon Martin as their pick man in an attempt to draw Duncan out, and no guard in the league is more adept than Kidd at forcing the action off a pick-and-roll.