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It's Tim's Time
For his first four seasons Tim Duncan was the Spurs' quiet man. He was an All-Star who hid his emotions and deferred to his celebrated elder teammate, David Robinson. Now it is clear Duncan will defer no more. Although he will never be mistaken for a chatterbox, the 25-year-old Duncan has been speaking up in the huddle, directing teammates on the court and demanding a high level of play from everyone, including Robinson, who is in the worst slump of his 13-year career.
Robinson's numbers (11.0 points per game, 7.8 rebounds and 1.88 blocks at week's end) are all down from last season. In a five-game stretch last month coach Gregg Popovich benched him three times for the entire fourth quarter, including during a 98-81 home loss to the Lakers in which Shaquille O'Neal didn't play and Robinson was outscored and outhustled by Mark Madsen. Rather than ducking the issue, Duncan backs Robinson's critics both inside and outside the locker room. "If the heat David has been getting changes his play for the better, it's a good thing," Duncan says. "Hearing it from other people—the media, his teammates—can light a fire, and that's the best way to get somebody rolling."
With Avery Johnson's off-season move to Denver and Sean Elliott's retirement to the Spurs' TV booth, leadership is at a premium in San Antonio. Popovich is glad to see Duncan asserting himself. "David always led by example," Popovich says. "We're pushing Tim to be a leader harder than David was pushed, and he's responding very well."
Duncan resolved to sharpen his focus after last season, when the Spurs won a league-high 58 games only to be swept by the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. "I set goals to have the best season of my career," says Duncan, who is putting up MVP-caliber numbers. Through Sunday he was No. 1 in the league in rebounds, (12.7 per game), No. 3 in blocked shots (2.79) and No. 6 in scoring (25.3)—all career highs. He was even hitting 82.2% of his free throws, up from 61.8% a year ago. A newfound intensity is apparent in the way he snaps up a rebound or in the anger he shows at his own mistakes.
Behind Duncan—and despite adding nine new players—the Spurs jumped to a 20-4 start. They lost nine of their next 18 because of a tough schedule, injuries and Robinson's struggles, the last of which has drawn the most attention. Popovich says he has been replacing Robinson with 6'7" Malik Rose in the fourth quarter mainly because opponents have been going with smaller lineups. There may be more to it than that. According to a friend of Robinson's, the Admiral's relationship with Popovich has been strained since last summer, when Popovich tried to re-sign him for about half of his 2000-01 salary of $14.7 million, to reduce payroll enough to acquire significant free-agent help. When Robinson balked, San Antonio courted free agent Chris Webber, who ultimately stayed with the Kings.
"I just don't think you can play anymore," Robinson says that Popovich told him. Popovich won't confirm or deny that he made that remark, but he did re-sign Robinson for $20 million over two years and granted him a no-trade clause.
Many believe that Popovich benched Robinson to inspire him, knowing the Spurs will have no chance at the title unless he's at his best. Opponents believe Robinson's age and aching back are catching up with him. "The Twin Towers aren't scary anymore," says Webber, "even though Duncan is." Says a Western Conference coach of Robinson, "He's certainly sliding, and pretty fast. Defensively he can still change a game, but the ferocity isn't there anymore. On offense he's become an afterthought. It's Tim's show now, and he's a one-man show."
The day after the home loss to L.A., Robinson told the San Antonio media that it was his responsibility to earn more minutes. In a private meeting with his coach, however, Robinson used different words. "I told Pop that whatever the situation is, I've got to be on the floor," Robinson says. "I feel as good as I have in a long time. I just have to figure out how I can be more effective for Tim and this team."
Robinson played better last week, including a 16-point, seven-rebound, three-block performance in a loss to the Nets. At week's end Duncan and Robinson were together producing 36.3 points per game, 20.5 rebounds and 4.66 blocks—not far from their average production over the preceding four years (39.2 points, 21.7 boards and 4.79 blocks). Nonetheless, the gap between Robinson and Duncan has never been larger.