MIAMI — Tim Duncan backing in on Shane Battier, who is 3 inches shorter, 35 pounds lighter and a Hall of Fame away in terms of talent, that’s better than San Antonio ever could have hoped for with Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the line.
Three times an NBA Finals MVP, big Tim is automatic in situations like that. It’s so famously fundamental for him, the footwork, the blend of power and grace, the well-earned layup against an overmatched defender. At 37, he’s practiced that move so often and so precisely that the only easier shot for him would be a slam dunk in an empty gym.
Imagine, then, the shock Duncan felt when the ball went glancing off the rim, and once more on his frantic tip-in attempt. That basket, if it had dropped, would have tied the score at 90 in the final minute, and would have crammed the Miami Heat’s confetti shower right back into the cannons for at least a little while.
Instead, after scoring 30 points in Game 6 and 24 more in Thursday’s Game 7, Duncan, the former Wake Forest star, soon found himself in front of a roomful of reporters, his head in his hands at the front table, his mind wandering to places it has never been in four previous NBA Finals appearances.
“Missing a layup to tie the game, making a bad decision down the stretch, being unable to stop Dwyane (Wade) and LeBron (James), Game 7 is always going to haunt me,” Duncan said.
He’s taking this 95-88 loss more personally than he should. Other than Kawhi Leonard, who scored 19 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, nobody else on the Spurs played at a championship level Thursday night.
Leonard, however, is 21 years old. Duncan, ages beyond that, played 43 minutes and change in this worldwide examination of his heart as well as his game. As a matter of fact, out of every player on Miami’s athletically superior roster, only James, the game’s latest legend, played more minutes than Duncan over these last seven games, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra calls James “the best-conditioned athlete in this game.”
Respect is clearly due Duncan, and a fair dose of sympathy, too, even here in South Florida.
He got no help from 3-point specialist Danny Green once the series shifted back to Miami for the final two games. Duncan had to heft all of the headlines for the rest of San Antonio’s Big Three, too. Manu Ginobili was a turnover machine the last few games and Tony Parker, on the bench at the end of a 10-point performance in Game 7, seemed to run out of gas.
Maybe that’s why Duncan came up a little short on that last, best opportunity to steal the show from Miami’s back-to-back champions. He was pushing every hot button all game long, trying to spur the Spurs against a team that won 27 straight during the regular season and eventually lived up to that lofty reputation.
”I was just praying that he missed it, to be honest with you,” Battier said. ”I don’t think I affected the shot that much. I was just trying to make him shoot over the top, and that’s a shot Tim Duncan usually makes eight out of 10 times.”
San Antonio fans won’t jump on Duncan for failing the way South Florida would slam LeBron in the same situation. Duncan has stood the test of time, ranking sixth all-time in playoff scoring (he passed Jerry West on Thursday night) and third in playoff rebounds (only Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain had more).
None of that mattered to him, however, as Duncan headed silently for the team bus, his polo shirt untucked, his head down, a loser for the first time in the NBA Finals after a truly grand total of four San Antonio trophy ceremonies going all the way back to 1999.
He knows that it truly is LeBron’s league now, just as Duncan predicted six years ago when the Spurs swept LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers in the championship series.
That realization didn’t have to wait for the final buzzer, either. Duncan’s actions showed that when he slapped the floor loudly on the defensive end of the court after missing that gigantic opportunity in close.
“That’s out of me just missing a bunny,” Duncan said when asked to explain his rare show of emotion and frustration. “I got by Shane and had a layup to tie the game. That’s just frustration.”
Remember, too, that the Spurs were within one stop or one rebound of clinching the title for themselves Tuesday night before losing in overtime.
Credit Duncan for bringing his team together for one more push, for making the Heat sweat it out even on a night when James scored 37 points and Wade added 23.
“You’ve got a great team,” Spoelstra told Duncan as they crossed paths near the postgame interview room, and that’s true.
More specifically, the Spurs have been a great team for as long as Duncan’s been around, and no matter who has played alongside him. They’ve never won consecutive championships like Miami just did, but even now, past their prime, they gave the Heat what Spo called “the toughest series we’ve ever been in.”
Early in these NBA Finals, it was hot 3-point shooting by San Antonio’s guards that made it so. In the end, in this bitter Game 7, the easy points stopped flowing so the Spurs took them one deadly drip at a time, making 20 of 22 free throws.
That’s the maddening patience of this San Antonio team, and the steely character. The last time they were in an NBA Finals Game 7, the result, an 81-74 victory over Detroit in 2005, put America to sleep but it put another trophy in Duncan’s hands. That’s a trade San Antonio could live with, and gladly would have again here against Miami.
Asked if he’ll be back next season, Duncan said, “I have a contract that says I am.”
Let’s hope he does.
Everyone at AmericanAirlines Arena, including LeBron, the NBA Finals MVP, can still learn a lot from this guy.