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With heels splayed and toes pigeoned, Tim Duncan's anime-wide eyes are fixed on the floor 10 feet in front of him as he makes his telltale walk toward another NBA championship. It is the walk of someone with something on his mind that he doesn't wish to share. Is he confident ... or anxious? It's none of your business. Every night that Duncan steps onto the court from the San Antonio Spurs' bench, he carries himself like a baseball manager on his way to the mound: head down with his long arms seesawing to their own gangly rhythm, his face an inscrutable mask. The fans may be cheering or booing, but Duncan, bless his consistency, appears deaf to them.
There was a time five or six years ago, when he couldn't get his team past the Los Angeles Lakers, that Duncan's reticence was seen as a weakness. He was a team-first player then, too, yet he was criticized for lacking the fiery charisma, the bravado to inspire the Spurs. Those days are hard to recall now that Duncan's leadership and passion have set a standard beyond reach of his rivals. These playoffs should complete the makeover of Duncan from Shaquille O'Neal's victim to his heir: If he leads favored San Antonio past the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference finals (the Spurs led 3--1 after their 91--79 win on Monday night in Game 4) and then maximizes home court advantage in the Finals against the Detroit Pistons or Cleveland Cavaliers, his ring collection will match Shaq's--and Duncan will have won his fourth at 31, three years younger than O'Neal was when the Miami Heat took the title last June.
The 6'11", 260-pound Duncan has emerged as the Jason Kidd of big men, a playmaker able to elevate his teammates from the low post. "In my 20 years in the NBA, Duncan is the best big to play the game," says former Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy. " O'Neal always had the benefit of a dominant perimeter player from [Penny] Hardaway to [Kobe] Bryant to [Dwyane] Wade. Duncan has had very good players--[Manu] Gin�bili and [Tony] Parker are tremendous--but he's never had that dominant player, so that's why I give him the edge."
If Duncan has avoided historical reckoning until now, it's because his versatility has made comparisons difficult. "The first decision that has to be made is, Are we going to talk about him as a post guy or as a forward? Because he's sort of both," says Gregg Popovich, Duncan's only NBA coach. "You think about guys like Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and Wilt [Chamberlain], and you don't think of Tim. Then you look at forwards like Elvin Hayes or Kevin McHale or Larry Bird, and you don't exactly think of Tim in the way that they played either. He's really an anomaly and has done both [roles].
"So I just try to think of him more as a power forward, for lack of a better definition. And I don't know that there's ever going to be somebody better at that position, considering everything he's done. It's not just the scoring and the defense--you add the blocked shots, the passing, the leadership he's given, the championships."
Says Orlando Magic senior vice president Pat Williams, "Are Karl Malone, Kevin McHale and Bob Pettit the greatest power forwards of all time? On that basis I'd take Duncan. He's just rock solid as a competitor and performer every night. He wins. At the end of the day that's all there is to do."
Last year Duncan looked prematurely old while playing 80 games (and averaging a career-low 18.6 points) with a painful seasonlong bout of plantar fasciitis. "We talked a lot about, 'If you're at a certain point, Timmy, I'll just need to sit you for two months,'" recalls Popovich. Duncan's ailment, along with a leaguewide trend toward up-tempo play, combined to create doubt that the Spurs could keep up with younger contenders like the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks, who KO'd San Antonio in the second round.
But Duncan began working himself back into shape early last summer, and after pacing himself through the regular season (20.0 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.38 blocks in just 34.1 minutes per game) he has picked up his production in the playoffs with a more familiar line: Through Monday he had averaged 23.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 3.53 blocks. "It's always interesting to see how he is to start the ball game," says Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "He is very polite and very nice to the guys he plays against, and then he annihilates them when he gets out on the floor. He is a no-nonsense guy."
After watching Duncan seal himself deep in the post for one-step layups to help the Spurs seize the first two games in San Antonio, Utah decided to forego the nonsense as well. In Game 3 last Saturday in Salt Lake City, Mehmet Okur, Jarron Collins and anybody else within slapping distance struck Duncan's hands, arms and head, forcing him to commit an uncharacteristic eight turnovers. Duncan's subsequent retaliations led to gamelong foul trouble, limiting him to 16 points and 26 minutes in a 109--83 loss. "People were asking me if I was surprised to see him so emotional," says Jazz guard Derek Fisher. "I'm not surprised. Tim's a champion. If things aren't going well for you, you're supposed to be frustrated and not pleased with what's happening."
Two nights later Duncan was still irrascible, muttering when he misfired on an array of warmup jumpers before Game 4. But he predictably translated his anger into a Spurs victory. Amid a Greco-Roman atmosphere Duncan provided order with 19 points, nine rebounds and five blocks, and in the final quarter he bulled his way to the line for five points to complement the drives of Gin�bili, who scored 16 in the fourth. The Spurs looked as competitive as ever, and by game's end Duncan was back to his placid self.