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.
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
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."
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.