- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2007


The even-temperedness and excellence of Tim Duncan is often equated to an eye-glazing blandness, a superficial characterization that perhaps reflects the mind-set of a generation weaned on trash talk shows, so-called reality television fare and all too many athletes gone wild.

It is true there is no celebration of self with Duncan, no compulsion to beat on his chest, no need to be viewed above the team.

He is professional to the core, a paragon of what is right with the NBA and seemingly unfazed by a lifestyle that leaves so many askew.

He is asked after Game 2 whether the game plan of the Spurs includes paying particular attention to the Jazz in the second quarter.

This question is prompted by the Spurs outscoring the Jazz 31-16 in the second quarter of Game 1 and 32-17 in the second quarter of Game 2.

This is an amusing notion, as if the Spurs have a secret button they are able to press before the start of the second quarter, as if a game involving 10 players on the floor, three referees, one basketball, countless movements and interpretations can be so easily managed.

Duncan ignores the absurdity of the question and delivers a matter-of-fact response.

“It is not by design,” he says of the one-sided second quarters that have determined the outcome of the first two games of the Western Conference finals. “It is not by anything else other than we are playing possession by possession.”

Or taking it one possession at a time.

That is the beauty of Duncan. He is so darn predictable in temperament and play that Charles Barkley has taken to calling him “Groundhog Day” because of his numbing consistency game after game.

Duncan had 26 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots in Game 2, similar to his 27 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots in Game 1.

He has come to be the leading postseason player of his time, even more dominant than Shaquille O’Neal, whose massive body is starting to betray him.

Duncan won his first NBA championship in 1999, one season before O’Neal’s first, and here he is gunning for a fourth ring that would equal O’Neal’s haul.

It should be noted that O’Neal’s fourth championship was fashioned in large measure because of Dwyane Wade. Duncan has been and is the focal point of everything the Spurs try to do on offense and defense.

Duncan and the Spurs just might be nearing a fifth NBA championship if not for Derek Fisher’s shot with four-tenths of a second left that decided Game 5 of the 2004 conference semifinal between the Lakers and Spurs.

Or perhaps nearing a sixth championship if Manu Ginobili had not fouled Dirk Nowitzki in the waning seconds of Game 7 of the conference semifinal last season.

Duncan is nudging ever closer to being placed among the NBA’s top tier of all-time greats. That would be Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving, Oscar Robertson and O’Neal.

Jerry Sloan, the Jazz coach who presided over the career of Malone, says, “Duncan’s probably the best player to ever play the position the way he plays it.”

That position is power forward with a strong dose of the back-to-the-basket maneuvering of a classic center.

Sloan sees something else in Duncan. He sees a player who unifies a team.

“They threw a pass over his head at one point [in Game 1],” Sloan says. “And he took responsibility for it.”

Teammate Robert Horry, who has played with Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant and O’Neal, says, “What he does night in and night out is incredible, especially in this day and age when defenses are designed to shut guys down. He is the head of our snake, and everyone knows that. Yet he still manages to produce. It’s a testament to his abilities. His place in history is sure to find him as one of the best power forwards to ever play the game.”

That is a sentiment shared by Spurs forward Bruce Bowen.

“It’s an honor to play with him, and it shows in his two MVP awards and All-NBA stats year in and year out,” Bowen says. “It’s truly incredible, but he never would tell you that. That’s his humbleness, and we need more of that in this world.”

Duncan is in physical decline at age 31. His best statistical regular seasons are behind him, partly because Spurs coach Gregg Popovich restricts his minutes out of deference to the postseason.

Duncan no longer moves with the agility of his youth, when the roles of the Spurs and Jazz were in reverse. The aging but wily Jazz of Malone and John Stockton then stood in the way of the Spurs.

Duncan compensates for the erosion of his physical gifts with a high skill level and accurate reads on offense and defense. If he has lost a step, he has gained a step and a half of knowledge the last 10 NBA seasons. His passing ability, especially out of double teams, has improved considerably from his first few seasons in the NBA.

His passing ability even has made Fabricio Oberto a scoring threat against the Jazz, no small accomplishment.

The precision of Duncan and the Spurs is textbook-like, a splendid display of what a team can be.

Duncan and the Spurs are subservient to the notion of the team, which maximizes their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses.

This is why they are still playing and the 67-win Mavericks have been removed from the postseason.

Duncan and the Spurs always have been beatable during their reign, which is meant as a compliment. They may be beatable, but they rarely beat themselves.

If that is boring or somehow blase to the American public — Duncan and the Spurs can’t seem to shake that rap — theirs is a basketball genius that goes unappreciated.

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