There’s a guy in the NBA who can stop Tim Duncan. His name is Tim Duncan. When he’s passive, waiting for the ball to come to him, fading away from the basket, he’s just another player. A great one, but just another one.
That Tim Duncan, who shows up a lot and is good enough to lead the Spurs to a win over most teams most nights, showed up for Game 6 Tuesday night and the Spurs lost to the Pistons.
But when Duncan decides to play ball, to really play, he’s a nuclear weapon. In the third quarter of Game 7 Thursday, Duncan decided it was time to play ball, and the Spurs are champions of the NBA, 81-74 winners of a Game 7 that was like a heavyweight title fight held in a phone booth.
“Tim came out huge today,” said San Antonio point guard Tony Parker. “He was very focused this morning and he came out and he played like an MVP. He carried us in the third quarter when we were struggling and he made his free throws tonight. That was huge.”
It’s a wonderful trend and at first glance, with their humility and teamwork, the Spurs seem to fit right in. But make no mistake, as exciting as Manu Ginobili is and as much as he can take over a game at times, the Spurs are Tim Duncan’s team.
Quiet, gracious and thoroughly admirable, Duncan will never act the part of the big stud. Unfortunately, this positive civilian trait becomes a problem on the court. The idea that this athlete or that one is “too nice,” lacking the requisite killer instinct — a charge leveled for years at another great Spur, David Robinson, who ended up with two championships once Duncan came along — is usually a lot of hooey.
But with Duncan there’s something to it. It’s not that he’s too nice, but that he’s too passive. He often seems content to let the game flow to him, to not force things, which is fine if you’re a small forward of modest talents, let’s say, and it’s usually good enough when you’re one of the greatest players to ever lace up sneakers, which Duncan is.
But it’s not good enough when the other team is the defending champion, probably better this year than last year, and not going to go down without a bitter fight.
The Spurs are a team all right, but they’re a team that goes exactly as far as Tim Duncan decides he wants to take them.
And Thursday night, unlike Tuesday, he decided he wanted to take them to the championship.
Duncan showed some fire in the first quarter, leading a 10-0 charge that erased a 12-6 Pistons lead. He played fiercely on both ends, but even during that run he beat Ben Wallace with a spin move on the baseline and, instead of going strong to the rim, went up soft. Wallace swatted the ball away from behind.
By the second quarter Duncan had settled into the amiable excellence of Game 6, which wasn’t enough for the Spurs to win Tuesday and wouldn’t be enough Thursday. The Spurs kept getting the ball to him in the post, and he kept missing fadeaways and that bank shot of his from the wing.
From the middle of the second period to the middle of the third he went 0-for-8 in a 14-minute stretch, including two minutes he spent on the bench. The Pistons built a nine-point lead. It wasn’t a coincidence.
Early in the run Detroit didn’t dominate. The Spurs were getting shots, from Duncan and others, but they were tough shots, all the Pistons would allow, and they weren’t falling.
Then the Spurs started looking lost. A frustrated Ginobili drove into a double team and made a bad pass. Parker, who made one bad decision after another on offense all night, dribbled around aimlessly for an entire shot clock before launching a desperate runner from the baseline that missed badly.
Antonio McDyess had an easy layup for Detroit, even after picking up his dribble, because of a defensive breakdown. Parker finally stopped the bleeding with a little jumper in the lane.
The Spurs were down 48-41 and looking like they were in danger of getting blown out when the unstoppable Tim Duncan emerged.
After Game 5 hero Robert Horry stole an ill-advised long pass by Chauncey Billups, Duncan took an entry pass from the right corner, backed in on Wallace, spun to his right and went up for another soft shot against a Wallace-McDyess double-team, a left-handed baby hook. It was no good, but he beat McDyess to the rebound and put it back. Foul on McDyess. Three-point play.
The Pistons still led by four, but that was the turning point of the game.
The Spurs began feeding Duncan every time down the floor. He was fouled to prevent a dunk and he made both free throws. He was fouled on a made bank shot and hit the free throw. He faced up for a jumper. The crowd was beside itself. He sealed off Wallace to give Ginobili a lane for a dunk. He took an inbounds pass and hit a bank shot to beat the 24-second clock.
The quarter ended at 57-57. Duncan had 12 points and six rebounds in the period after having collected eight points and three rebounds in the first half. The Spurs, who had been down by one at the half, only outscored Detroit 19-18 in the period, but they’d overcome a bad start and a nine-point deficit and had the Pistons on their heels.
And they’d also clamped down on defense. The Pistons struggled to find open shots. Billups and Rip Hamilton managed only two shots each in the third quarter, with one of Hamilton’s going in. They combined for eight points. During one stretch that straddled the third-quarter break the Pistons were so out of whack they made Lindsey Hunter the focal point of their offense.
A rule of thumb in the NBA is that if Lindsey Hunter is the focal point of your offense for more than one trip down the floor in a given week, you’re in trouble.
On the Spurs’ second possession of the fourth quarter, Duncan sealed off Wallace again, took a feed from Brent Barry in the corner and dunked. The Pistons began double-teaming Duncan and he started kicking the ball out to his teammates. Horry hit a three. Bruce Bowen hit a three. Ginobili hit a three. The Spurs led by seven.
The Pistons hung around. Rasheed Wallace, who scored the Pistons’ first basket and then didn’t score again until the fourth quarter, kept them close, coming alive to score nine points in the period. They closed to within four a few times, but were hurt badly by ill-chosen three-point attempts by Rasheed Wallace, who missed badly, and Billups, whose shot was blocked and stolen by Bowen.
They were also hurt by a couple of tough foul calls in the last two minutes, a charge on Hamilton that should have been a block on Horry, and a hack on Rasheed Wallace when it appeared he’d cleanly knocked the ball away from Duncan, who was crossing the lane.
But foul calls weren’t the difference. Tim Duncan was the difference. His ability in the last 18 minutes to score and to absorb a double-team and find the open shooter were the difference, and so was his increased intensity on the other end of the floor, which led to the entire team ratcheting up its defensive effort.
“They played great,” Pistons coach Larry Brown said. “The better team won.”
That was true for Game 7 and probably true for the series overall, if just barely. The Spurs, coached by Brown protégé Gregg Popovich, are every bit the all-for-one bunch the Pistons are. Duncan talked about that when he accepted the NBA Finals MVP trophy from commissioner David Stern.
“This trophy’s definitely an honor, but this team has so many MVPs,” he said. “These guys just laid it on the line every night, and we couldn’t have made it this far without any one of them, so every one of them’s an MVP.”
A nice sentiment, the kind of thing you like to hear big-time athletes saying, mostly because they so rarely say things like that. But if everyone on the Spurs is an MVP, there’s one Spur who’s just a little more V than the rest. A lot more, in fact.
When he wants to be.
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