Down two with under a minute to play in Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals, the Spurs stumbled upon an unexpected bit of luck. Whether out of expediency or confusion, Miami’s defense had allowed an egregious mismatch to materialize: 6’ 11’’ Tim Duncan found himself being guarded on the low block by Shane Battier and his 6’ 8” frame. Manu Ginobili quickly recognized the advantage and fed the ball past LeBron James to Duncan, who took a quick dribble, swung into the lane and softly extended his right arm far above Battier, who didn’t even lift his feet off the floor.
We believe we know what kind of player Duncan is and we’re not interested in evidence that contradicts that.
Duncan overshot the rim slightly, but the ball bounced back his direction. He rose, batted it back towards the rim, and watched as it dropped into the arms of Chris Bosh, who had snuck into position on the far side of the paint.
Duncan, having just missed an easy opportunity to tie the score at 90, pulled his jersey over his face as he hurried back down the floor. The Heat were moving slowly up the court, in no rush to begin the next play. Duncan turned, bent at the waist, and smacked his hands on the hardwood with such force that the sound of the slap could be heard on television over the noise of the roaring crowd. He broke down into the clinical definition of a defensive stance, his knees bent, his arms spread wide apart, although he didn’t seem to be defending anything or anyone in particular.
The Heat called a timeout. Nine players on the court headed towards their respective benches. None of them spoke to Duncan, who remained still for a moment then placed his hands on his knees. He said nothing. I cannot imagine what he was thinking. People assume empty clichés about failure or success somehow capture the inner lives of elite athletes. I suspect the way failure eats away at them is unlike anything most of us — or at least I — have ever known. They suffer from a spiritual affliction akin to an Ebola of the soul.
Which brings me to my point: Tim Duncan, like many great NBA champions, has demons he cannot outrun. Like many great NBA champions, he is both more fragile and more talented than we imagine him to be. Like many great NBA champions, the closer you look at him, the less and less he looks like the man we know him to be.
Let’s go even further back, to the moment that, until the 2013 NBA playoffs, was arguably the most painful moment in the history of the San Antonio Spurs.
With about 15 seconds left in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference Semifinals, the Lakers were down one. Kobe Bryant curled off of a Karl Malone screen, slipped into the mid-range and buried a leaning jumper over Robert Horry who, worried about the possibility of a drive, never challenged the shot. Lakers 72, Spurs 71.
A couple minutes later (in real time, not game time) 5.4 seconds were left on the clock, the score still 72-71. Manu Ginobili faked an inbounds pass to the corner and dumped the ball into Tim Duncan, who was being forced farther and farther away from the paint by the hulking Shaquille O’Neal. Duncan held the ball high as Ginobili flashed off of his hip and tripped over Shaq’s foot, allowing the trailing Bryant, who had become entangled with Duncan, to recover. Duncan drove toward the middle of the floor, exploded both up and away, and released a high arcing jump shot over Shaq’s outstretched arms. Duncan, out of balance, stumbled back towards the Spurs bench. The ball splashed through the rim. The noise from the crowd was deafening.
It was a brilliant shot: necessary but daring. It’s the kind of shot no one associates with Duncan, partly because Derek Fisher managed to score on the ensuing play, which lasted all of .4 seconds. But we also don’t associate plays like that with Duncan because they don’t correspond to the idea that he’s a methodical, robotic or, at worst, unimaginative player. We believe we know what kind of player Duncan is, and we’re not interested in evidence that contradicts that.
That’s not to say Duncan’s reputation for being consistent and methodical is undeserved. Year-to-year there is little to no variation in his statistical output. It is uniformly high. However, that consistency is not the byproduct of dispassion. Duncan is an intensely emotional player. The ceaseless pursuit of excellence for which he is known is likely born out of a complex mixture of pain and pride. That kind of tortured devotion isn’t seen in those with a still mind or a soft heart.
I don’t know what drives him. No one may. He’s more private than the vast majority of superstars. The fact that he doesn’t wrestle with his demons in public has led to the false assumption that he doesn’t have any.
Consistency is not the byproduct of dispassion. Duncan is an intensely emotional player.
He does show us glimpses, however.
There is one rather demonstrative moment people tend to remember, largely because the NBA’s advertising execs have anointed it a member of the canon of great postseason moments. I’m referring to the three-pointer he hit at the end of the 1st overtime of Game 1 of the 2008 opening round series against the Phoenix Suns.
Like the shot he hit against the Lakers in 2004, the three-pointer was necessary but nonetheless daring. In the moments immediately following the shot Duncan roared and clinched his fists and even strutted a tad. His gait was made up of those choppy, abrupt hops people take when they’re not free to show their full excitement.
I watched him gallop down the court making that angry face people make when their joy is coupled with someone else’s pain, and I couldn’t help but think that I was finally looking at the player I had always suspected him to be.
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