A great chapter closed, an era ended, the ink is finally dry on the career of Tim Duncan. Of course, we’ll be arguing legacies and positions played until time immemorial because that’s what we do, but there is no next with Tim Duncan. In the early morning when I found out about his retirement, my mind was clear, not yet polluted by the noise of the day and corporate worries. I trust my morning mind and for some reason, my first thoughts of Duncan were his failures.
Back in 2013 when the Heat battled back from a game six fourth quarter deficit and eventually won the series in game seven, a major footnote of the series happened in the fourth quarter of game seven with Miami up 90-88 and less than a minute remaining in the game. Duncan, guarded by 6’7” Shane Battier, caught the ball on the left block and dribbled across the middle of the lane where he attempted and missed a driving layup. He perfectly timed his miss and used his great length to tip the ball back up, missing that as well. Miami rebounded the ball and went on to win the game. Duncan and the Spurs got the shot they wanted, but he missed. For a guy who’s considered by many to be the greatest power forward of all time, this was a low point.
“To be at this point — with this team, in a situation where people kind of counted us out — [it] is a great accomplishment to be in a Game 7,” Duncan said. “Or to be in a Game 6 up one and two chances to win an NBA championship and not do it, that’s tough to swallow.”
But now that the world has turned and left Duncan here, so close and yet so far away from the fifth title he so desperately craves, the Game 6 meltdown isn’t what he’ll remember most.
“For me, no. Game 7, missing a layup to tie the game … Making a bad decision down the stretch. Just unable to stop Dwyane [Wade] and LeBron [James]. Probably, for me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me.”
Tim Duncan’s greatness has never been up for debate. Since he stepped onto the court as a rookie and averaged 21-points with 12-rebounds and 2.5-blocks, he’s been firmly entrenched as a top player in the league. And yet, I’ll always remember his early career bugaboos from the free throw line. He never reached Shaq-level struggles, but battled the yips on multiple occasions over the years; most notably against the Pistons in game five of the 2005 Finals when he went 0-6 from the line in the 4th quarter including 0-3 in the final minute. It was remarkable to see a player who was otherwise so fundamentally sound lose focus or over-focus at critical points in big games. He was a 7-foot expressionless (except when disagreeing with calls) tactician with his own flaws and struggles.
I assume I’m attracted to Duncan’s failures in part because as a Lakers fan during the Shaq/Kobe era, Duncan and his Spurs were a fear-causing foil. If Shaq was a human wrecking ball patrolling the paint, Duncan was the Excellence of Execution, a player whose overall game was so refined as to appear pre-programmed, Terminator style. Some guys are so great that you that their success is assumed. If you root against these players or their teams, you become conditioned to them snuffing out your hope by just doing what they do.
But it was never just about Duncan. In some ways, Duncan and the Spurs were too good to be true, too good to resist. Part of the indelibleness of his and their failures is rooted deeply in the 19-year-long crush of a narrative that trails these Spurs around as a model of virtue and righteousness. It’s this unbudging narrative (and lack of questioning it) that pushed me to write this in 2014 and drove my friend Jacob Greenberg to write this a few months later. Duncan isn’t guilty of crafting these narratives, but Spurs and Popovich exceptionalism have always generated incessant storylines that made any deviation from the flawless particularly enjoyable.
But as I look back and re-watch some of these old misses, there’s no longer any joy. Removed from the passion that accompanies being a fan fully engrossed in the live moment, it’s empathy and feeling that stand out. For all the descriptions of being a stoic and being a robot, Duncan is composed of the same moondust that makes up all of us. And in seeing his failure and the weights of those disappointments, I can’t help but feel some of what he feels even if I only ever hoped his team would be defeated.
So in my pettiness, it’s failure that stands out and it isn’t just the free throws I remember. As has become a theme of this blog, my own personal fan experience is one that relishes the defeat of true foes as much as it celebrates my own team’s victories. May 13th, 2004 delivered an iconic basketball moment and Duncan was a significant figure in the memory. I was at my apartment in Iowa City, a fifth-year senior grinding through his final classes, watching a Lakers/Spurs Western Conference Semifinals grinder from bed while my wife (then my girlfriend) studied or worked or just chilled next to me. The game unfolded on my crappy 19” TV, a low-scoring affair in the 70s of which I remember little except two shots.
With just over five seconds on the clock and a 72-71 Lakers lead in San Antonio, Duncan caught Ginobili’s inbounds at the right elbow and with a 7’1”, 350lbs-plus Shaq draped over him, took a couple hard dribbles to his left and elevated with his momentum carrying him that direction and flung a shot at the basket. He didn’t follow-through, it was just a quick trigger of a line drive that seemed to be magnetically pulled into and through the hoop.
The Spurs, their fans, and of course Duncan erupted. The camera zoomed in on Kobe, on Shaq. They’re stunned, disbelieving. The clock read 0.4 seconds and in my room as a 23-year-old, I am deflated. Even re-watching it now, a stain of disappointment is still there, just barely, but there it is; knowingly bested even if by a fluke shot. Even if it didn’t play out that way, the likelihood of defeat was all too real to the point I still carry it with me more than 12 years later.
The Lakers come back down with Gary Payton inbounding. Shaq peels back checking for the lob, but Rasho Nesterovic denies it. Kobe tries to break away north of the three-point line, but it’s Derek Fisher making a hard cut to the ball, catching and barely turning and shooting all in one motion. From a sitting position, I jumped off my bed, nearly hitting my head on the ceiling. I shrieked or screamed or yelled and my wife nearly had a heart attack. And all those Spurs, Kevin Willis, Bruce Bowen, Hedo Turkoglu, and of course Tim Duncan are struck down by their own incomprehension which is only made more agonizing by the review process that confirms it all: shot is good, Lakers win.
That the most controversial aspect of Duncan’s career is whether or not he was a power forward or center is the vanilla of NBA controversies. He made no waves, just dominated. He won two MVPs, three Finals MVPs, an All-Star MVP, and five NBA Championships. I guess people want to debate if he’s the best power forward ever or how he stacks up against Kobe as the best player of their shared generation, but there’s not much to argue for me. I’ll always remember the failures and even if I understand how and why my memories drift that way, I can’t help but feel that in relishing the losses, I missed out on some great moments from one of the greatest basketball players of my lifetime.
What a night. What a fucking night for the NBA, for the game of basketball, for Nate Robinson, Steph Curry and Manu Ginobili. What a night for Twitter and the screaming woman at the Spurs game. What didn’t happen? Game ones of the second round: Bulls @ Heat in the early game and Warriors @ Spurs in the later game.
The Heat were 11.5-point favorites and for good reason. Coming into tonight, Miami was 39-4 at home (counting playoffs) and was mostly healthy with the exception of Dwyane Wade’s nagging knee injury. We all know about the Bulls: Kirk Hinrich’s out with a calf injury, Luol Deng’s dealing with fallout from a spinal tap gone wrong and we’re all depleted from the media throwing Derrick Rose on repeat and forcing us to listen over and over. So the Bulls rolled out Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. They did everything. Every damn thing you could ask for from a group of rejects (Robinson and Belinelli), outcasts (Noah), overlooked (Butler) and scorned (Boozer) players.
Down the stretch of this game, with Noah compulsively hustling and diving, scowling at opponents and teammates alike with long tendrils of hair stuck to his sweaty face, the Bulls stared up at a slight fourth quarter deficit of four points; but if felt like a Miami’s game all the way. How many times this season have we seen the Heat cruise through three quarters against lesser-talented teams only to turn up the intensity late in the game and walk away with easy victories. And when Jimmy Butler, all 6’7” and 220lbs of chiseled Jimmy Butler, attempted to wrap up LeBron on a fast break, but was overpowered by Bron’s lefty layup, I was impressed and relaxed, thinking Miami was just closing out another victory against another helpless victim. But I was oh-so-fortunately wrong and had no idea what was about to happen. The Bulls hit three threes (two by Belinelli and one by Butler) in the final five minutes, they shot 9-10 from the line and they frustrated the defending champions into missing all five of their shots in the final 97-seconds of the game. Somehow, the Bulls went down to the hardly hostile American Airlines Arena and beat the Heat 93-86 including a 35-24 fourth quarter.
For all that happened (Nate Robinson) and didn’t happen (Miami scoring points—they had their lowest point total since an 86-67 victory over these same Bulls on 2/21), what stood out most to me was Dwyane Wade’s irrationally selfish decision, coming out of a timeout, to chuck up a contested three at the 1:07 mark of the 4th quarter with his team down two points. On so many levels this was a bad shot. Many of us have become accustomed to the “hero ball” or “toilet bowl” offense where we get Paul Pierce or Kobe or Melo pounding the air out of the ball followed by a contested three. We all know it’s a bad shot, but there’s a level of latitude for the players I just mentioned. And Wade’s earned plenty of latitude in his career as well, but not enough to pull the shit he pulled on Monday night. Miami couldn’t have possibly drawn up the Wade-from-the-top-of-the-key special, could they have? Let’s look at some Dwyane Wade stats:
Dwyane Wade shot 25.8% from three this season
He was 2-18 from three over his previous 33 games
Wade was one of the least accurate three-point shooters in the league; finishing just a few percentage points better than only three other players (Lamar Odom, Reggie Jackson and Kevin Love) who made at least 17-threes this season
No Threes Allowed
I’m elated for the Bulls. It feels good and I don’t want to take away from their resilient victory, but I can’t get over Wade’s three; just a baffling, baffling shot.
It took a while to get over that first game. There was a sense of low-level adrenaline running through my body after the Bulls withstood the Heat’s meager comeback attempts. But during the NBA playoffs, there’s no time for dwelling on the past. I opened my celebratory beers and was pleasantly surprised seeing the Warriors confident and comfortable on the Spurs home court. Up four at the half in the AT&T Center? Well yes, yes of course.
All hell broke loose in the third though. Steph Curry started raining fire from the skies like a light-skinned basketball-playing Zeus firing bolts into the round cylinder. The Spurs crowd cringed with every blow, flinched at every shot release. At one point, the camera showed Gregg Popovich standing still, his eyes closed, his head hung down, but far from out. He looked like he was attempting to visualize the solution to this problem and for a split second I imagined Popovich taking the law into his hands Tanya Harding style and whacking Curry’s knee with a baton of sorts. We both snapped out of it though and after a patented succession of Warriors mistakes to end the third quarter, the dust had settled and Curry’s third looked like this:
Minutes: 11 minutes, 56 seconds
Golden State 92, San Antonio 80 (end of third)
There was a sense, I think, in many of us who had been here before, who had sat through the Warriors’ near collapse on Thursday night in game six against the Nuggets, that trouble loomed ahead, that all the Curry-fueled momentum in the world wasn’t going to make this any easier. And it wasn’t. The Spurs used every ounce of savvy and veteran poise and whatever other cliché you want to dress them up with to outscore the Warriors 26-14 in the fourth quarter.
The Curry third quarter, the Spurs comeback; it all evolved or devolved into some kind of brilliant basketball game that etched itself deeper into our minds and stomachs, intertwining itself within the gray matter of our brains and the slimy coils of our intestines. Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Kent Bazemore, Andrew Bogut, Steph Curry, Jarrett Jack … a professionally-trained youth movement apparently oblivious to the fear that rides shotgun on their road to fate. On the opposite side, it was the familiar faces that have stalked the league so patiently with their secretive wisdom and insider humor: Pop, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and a strange cast of characters that plug into roles that feel tailor made: Boris Diaw, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green. They came and they came and they came. The old men with their flu bugs and bald spots and interchangeable pieces; a group of calm Texans embodying the same ethos of the Bulls. And somehow, after being down 18 points in the third quarter, the Spurs won in double overtime. Do you believe in Boris Diaw corner threes or nights where Manu Ginobili shoots 5-20, but hits the one that really matters? Fuck man, I don’t know, but I saw it happen.
Some notable items from this insane game in San Antonio in May:
Golden State shot 14-24 (58%) from the free throw line
Golden State is a 79% free throw-shooting team on the regular season (good enough for fourth in the league)
Boris Diaw: The big Frenchman had a series of big plays that helped this Spurs team achieve victory:
He somehow became the only Spurs player able conceive of not leaving his feet to guard Steph Curry. At the 1:22 mark in the fourth quarter, with GSW up five, Curry attempted a little shake move and pull up on Diaw; likely underestimating his defender’s length and discipline. Diaw blocked the shot without leaving the ground.
He went to the line and hit a pair of FTs to bring the Spurs to within one late in the 4th.
Diaw set the screen to free up Danny Green for the OT-forcing three.
He was on the floor for all of both OTs, contributed rebounds, screens and a clutch three.
There were heroes on both teams. Ginobili, Parker and Curry were special tonight, but in the thick history making moments, Diaw’s hand never shook. He played intelligent, confident basketball and is a big reason the Spurs are up 1-0 in this series.
I’ll close this with a line from Jim Morrison that embodies unknowing excitement of tonight and hopefully the days to come: I don’t know what’s gonna happen man, but I wanna have my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames…Alright!