A half hour after Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers had
plunged a near-fatal dagger into the heart of his MVP season on
Sunday, Tim Duncan, like most NBA superstars, sought succor from
his posse, which numbered all of three: his wife, Amy; his
business manager, Marc Scott; and Scott's girlfriend, Jove.
Wearing blue jeans and a cream-colored shirt unbuttoned over a
T-shirt, Duncan looked as if he were going to a beach in his
native St. Croix, but his dour countenance suggested otherwise.
He put a large hand on the small head of a young fan, then,
limping slightly, walked down a deserted hallway of San Antonio's
Alamodome with his crew. It is May, and it has become Duncan's
destiny to perform brilliantly in May, but not brilliantly enough
to get his Spurs past the Lakers, who took a 3-1 lead in the
Western Conference semifinal series with an 87-85 victory.
What Duncan really needed was a more effective posse on the
court. As L.A., which trailed 84-74 with 4:56 left, crept back
into the game behind the celestial talents of Bryant, Duncan
faced a dilemma: Should he force the issue by going at 7'1"
Shaquille O'Neal and 6'10" Robert Horry? Or should he do the
fundamentally sound thing and find open teammates? He chose the
latter, putting up only two shots in the fourth period while
point guard Tony Parker and reserves Antonio Daniels and Danny
Ferry misfired repeatedly. (They were a combined one for 12 down
the stretch.) With 3.2 seconds left and the Lakers leading by
two, the Spurs' final play was left to the quarterbacking of
39-year-old Terry Porter. But he slipped at the top of the key
before shoveling a pass to Duncan, whose awkward 20-footer only
grazed the rim. Duncan stared at the basket for a second, then
jogged to midcourt, where he lifted his jersey over his head as
he took a funereal walk toward the Spurs' locker room, his 30
points, 11 rebounds, six assists and four blocked shots having
gone for naught.
There is much frustration in Duncan's world these days courtesy
of the Lakers, who swept the Spurs by an average of 22.3 points
in the conference finals last season. Double- and sometimes
triple-teamed on Sunday by an L.A. squad that generally likes to
play straight-up man, unable to get off his turn-to-the-middle
jump hook from the left block, Duncan must have felt,
metaphorically speaking, as if he were on an island, so futile
were his teammates' efforts to provide assistance. (That is
disconcerting even for a guy from an island.) At 36 and hobbled
by a herniated disk, David Robinson offered only token support.
After the game Duncan's unproductive fourth quarter (three
points, all on free throws) was the major topic of discussion,
along with the heroics of Bryant, whose leaping left-handed
rebound of a Derek Fisher miss and subsequent right-handed follow
shot over Robinson with 5.1 seconds left proved to be the
The loss was yet another hard lesson for Duncan as he approached
the end of his fifth season. Here's a surprising fact: Duncan
turned 26 last month and is 10 months younger than Allen Iverson,
who, it would seem, could gain so much by sitting on Duncan's
knee and soaking up his tropical wisdom. Still, there is
something about Duncan's style that, even as it mandates
universal respect, draws mostly restrained praise. "I'm not
saying this to be critical," says Lakers assistant coach Tex
Winter, about to be critical, "but the one thing about him is
that he's fundamental to the point that he's predictable."
Also predictable, by now, is San Antonio's failure to produce a
key victory in May, which would have squelched any lingering
doubts about Duncan's worthiness as MVP, even though he did
everything this season (25.5 points per game, 12.7 rebounds, 3.7
assists, 2.5 blocks) save refurbish the limestone on the Alamo.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said he put extra pressure on Duncan
because he is "a willing passer." Did the sly Jackson mean too
willing, as in afraid to shoot? He didn't elaborate. Bryant said
that Duncan is "the kind of player who's not going to force
things." That was surely an innocent comment--even a
compliment--but it amounted to the same thing as Jackson's
implication: Duncan, unlike Bryant, had failed to snatch the game
by the neck and make it his own. Duncan knew it too. "I turned
down a couple of looks earlier than I should have," he said. "I
was trying to find the open people, but I should have just been a
little more selfish." Duncan had been more selfish in last
Friday's Game 3, hoisting nine shots in the fourth period but
making only four in a 99-89 defeat.
Bryant, by contrast, had shot abysmally on Friday but connected
on all five of his shots in the final period. (He finished with
31 points to Duncan's 28.) And we may have yet to see the best
of Kobe. His boundless talent, timing and bravado haven't been
seen since--well, since you know who--and it is no longer a
stretch to compare the 23-year-old Bryant to number 23. Duncan
and his mates probably should have known their home stand would
not be pleasant when, after the Lakers' 88-85 Game 2 loss,
Bryant rubbed his hands together and told the press, "This is
where the fun begins, fellas." What will haunt the Spurs about
last weekend is not that they played weak D on Bryant; it's that
in most cases a solid defender like Bruce Bowen was draped all
over him when he worked his magic and that Kobe seemed to drop
from heaven for that rebound-and-follow-shot on Sunday.
Afterward, Bryant even concluded an interview early to console a
youngster who was spilling saline all over his Spurs jersey.
"Don't worry, my man," he told the kid, stopping the flood of
tears. "You still got a great team. Keep on rooting for them."
So this is Kobe at playoff time: He breaks hearts with 23
fourth-quarter points in two games, then plays guardian angel in
Seven years younger than O'Neal, Bryant has become the straight
man to Shaq in this delightful purple-and-gold traveling
carnival. Throughout the series O'Neal, frustrated by his
injuries and miffed at some public criticism by Jackson about his
lack of hustle, was either silent or serving up surreal tidbits
from Shaq World, dispensed, of course, in Shaq Speak. "I'm used
to rolling on chrome dubs, but now I have to get used to 18-inch
aluminums," he said of his aching feet and ankles. Asked after
Game 4 about the estimable pairing of him and Bryant, Shaq
conjured up yin and yang, Frick and Frack and, of course,
Superman and Batman.
Throughout the season O'Neal--who, you probably realize by now,
has a superhero fixation--has referred to his teammates as "my
superfriends." Well, he has one superfriend anyway, and, as of
Sunday, that seemed more than enough to trump one MVP and his
cast of mere mortals.