- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 23, 2005

Tim Duncan needs Game 7 tonight, needs it to eliminate the growing skepticism lurking in his midst, needs it as an exclamation point to his impeccable career.

His psyche is now receiving a thorough dissection, given his shrinking presence in the late going of the last four games. His overall numbers, of course, are there. But he is not delivering the telling blow. He is not putting the Spurs on his back. And he is fighting himself on the free throw line, causing the faithful to squirm in their seats each time he goes there.

There is a Game 7 of the NBA Finals tonight, the first one in 11 years, and no player has more at stake than Duncan. He is possibly the No. 1 player in the NBA today. You could make the case. Or you could have made the case before these last few games.

Duncan is a two-time MVP of the NBA Finals, each one claimed with David Robinson covering his back.

That has been the attendant question all along: Can Duncan hoist the championship hardware without the help of Robinson?

I thought so going into the series. I still think so.

Then again, I thought the Spurs would vanquish the Pistons at home in Game 6 after Robert Horry interrupted the proceedings in Auburn Hills, Mich.

That is why they play the games, and that is why we write about the games.

If we really knew as much as we claim to know, most of us probably would be sitting all fat and happy in a hotel room in Las Vegas, waiting on our next room-service order.

Duncan is mostly unflappable, so the conventional wisdom goes.

Now, though, we are seeing hints of a Duncan who is thinking too hard. We see it in his eyes. We see it in the pursing of his lips. We hear it in the subtle words of coach Gregg Popovich.

Duncan steps to the free throw line in the fourth quarter, and you just know he is imploring himself to be calm and confident, to take a deep breath and hit the unimpeded shot. And then he misses, and his head game just grows from there.

And when it really matters in the fourth quarter, Duncan is not catching the ball in his favorite spots. The Pistons are forcing him farther from the basket than he wants to be.

And although Duncan has a nice bank shot from about 18 feet, it is a shot he prefers to take in the early going of a game or when a game is decidedly in the favor of the Spurs. When Duncan really needs a basket, he tries to maneuver in tight, on either block, so he can shoot the short jump hook with either hand.

The Pistons are contesting that entry pass, contesting every inch of the floor in the late going, sometimes deploying two defenders on Duncan.

The Spurs acquiesced to the defensive energy of the Pistons in the fourth quarter of Game6. The Spurs just had too many possessions when they were clueless, in a lather, looking to make something out of nothing, veering away from their sets.

Now the burden falls on Duncan like no other time in his career. He is the guy, one of the premier power forwards in NBA history, easily the most gifted player on the floor in this series.

San Antonio still can have its championship parade, however later than expected, if Duncan is inclined to be the steadying influence. This is not to suggest he has to score a bunch in the fourth quarter, because that is determined in part on how the Pistons elect to defend him.

But his body language needs to be better; his resolve, too. His teammates draw a measure of their strength from him. If they see a modicum of anxiety in him, their forays start to become forced, hurried.

It is our treat, this Game 7 in June at long last, and we get to play head doctor one last time with the lead player in the series.

Prognosis: I am sticking with Duncan, if only because lead players usually prevail in the championship environment of the NBA.

Of course, the Pistons mocked that truism last June.

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