The Big Fundamental To prevail in the championship series, the Nets will have to exploit flaws in the game of Spurs star Tim Duncan--if they can find any

June 08, 2003

The San Antonio Spurs exude an air of quiet professionalism,
suggesting a team of diligent stay-after-practice drudges
striving to get the most out of their ability. From time to time
they try too hard to play perfectly, thinking instead of
reacting, and allow double-digit leads to slip away. But those
close to the Spurs also know them as loosey-goosey and
fun-loving, inclined to roll their eyes at the
good-little-worker-bees image. ¶ Put simply, the San Antonio
Spurs are their 7-foot power forward, Tim Duncan. His character,
intelligence and disposition run through this team as surely as
the San Antonio River winds through the heart of the Alamo
City. "Tim sets the tone," reserve forward Danny Ferry said
before Game 4 of a Western Conference final in which the Spurs
defeated the Dallas Mavericks four games to two. "The work
ethic, the way he's always improving--those things provide a
model." A few minutes later, as forward Bruce Bowen stood at
the baseline doing an interview, Duncan peppered Bowen's back
with bounce passes. When Bowen was finished, he and Duncan
happily hacked each other for the next few minutes in a game of
one-on-one. "Now and then," said assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo,
"Tim Duncan knows how to be a goofball."

It's a safe bet that the goofball Duncan will not be on prominent
display against the New Jersey Nets in the Finals. Poised for a
run at the second title of his six-year career after winning
consecutive MVP awards, he stands alone at the NBA
mountaintop--where he would no doubt prefer to wear sandals, an
untucked shirt and a look that says he could live without all the
fuss. Even when the Mavs limited his effectiveness, "holding"
Duncan to an average of 20.7 points and 15.3 rebounds in the
final three games after he had put up 35.3 and 18.0 in the first
three, it was because they double-, triple-and sometimes
quadruple-teamed him, thus providing his teammates with jump
shots that were frighteningly unimpeded. (And frightening is the
correct word, considering how often they passed them up to jam
the ball in to Duncan.)

With the Texas shootout continuing while the Nets were cooling
their heels--after sweeping the Detroit Pistons, they would be
idle for 11 days before Game 1 on Wednesday--the excellence of
the 27-year-old Duncan has been the most sustained theme of this
year's playoffs. True, Nets point guard Jason Kidd, with his
baseline-to-baseline dashes, impending free agency and rumors of
his possible move to San Antonio, will grab a share of the Finals
spotlight. But Duncan has emerged as the postseason's principal
protagonist, a role played the past three seasons by the Los
Angeles Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal.

Consequently, this has been a quieter postseason. We'll get no
trash talk from T.D. or from his toe-the-line teammates. Even
Duncan's dunkin' has a tameness about it. "He's not throwing
behind-the-back passes, he's not doing tomahawk jams, he's not
doing anything that's very flashy," says New Jersey coach Byron
Scott. "He's just a very unassuming guy who goes about his job,
and the next thing you know he's got 23 points and 20 rebounds,
like it's a normal day at the job."

Duncan's only obvious flaw is his free throw shooting (71.0%
during the regular season, 67.4% in the playoffs), but that
stands out partly because every other aspect of his game is so
good. In contrast to the Big Scene Stealer, Duncan works his
magic almost invisibly. Most superstars have a physical attribute
that clearly explains their mastery--O'Neal's earth-moving mass,
Kidd's Energizer Bunny stamina, Kobe Bryant's quickness, Kevin
Garnett's pogo-stick leaping ability. But Duncan doesn't seem to
be stronger or quicker or more explosive than the average player;
the prosaic economy of his game is, paradoxically, its most
distinctive characteristic. Neither does he have anything
conspicuous that he gets away with, such as Patrick Ewing's palm
dribble or the shoulder-dipping clear-out that drives Shaq's
detractors to distraction. As Carlesimo puts it, Duncan is "the
most fundamentally sound player since...since...maybe ever."

The broad outlines of Duncan's success are obvious. After Shaq,
he is the league's most reliable low-post scorer, but his menu of
jumpers (face-up and turnaround) and jump hooks (from either
block) is more varied than O'Neal's and a threat from greater
range. "Tim's moves are one thing," says Ferry, "but what makes
him special are his countermoves, the kind that [former Boston
Celtic] Kevin McHale had. You stop him one way, he's got two
backup ways to get it done." Duncan's defense (he's been a
first-team all-league defender in each of his six seasons)
mirrors his offense: dependable, understated and, of course,
fundamentally sound. To get at the essence of Duncan's game it's
imperative to see how well he does the little things. To wit:

--In the Spurs' half-court offense, he almost never gives up his
dribble early in the possession while waiting for double and
triple teams to come at him. He waits, patiently holding the ball
out of reach, eyes up, then makes impeccable decisions. (On
occasion, though, he's too generous: A somewhat forced attempt
from Duncan, a 54.1% shooter in the playoffs, is better than a
good one from any other Spur.) If defenders don't adequately
corral him, Duncan will step through for a leaning jumper, often
drawing a foul in the process. Or he'll use his dribble to get
into the lane.

--Duncan is both nimble enough and accurate enough shooting from
the outside to be a big part of the pick-and-roll offense. He'll
set up on one side of the blocks, then cut across diagonally to
set a high screen for a guard, usually Tony Parker. Duncan
doesn't have three-point range but positions himself in a spot
around the elbow where he must be guarded.

--Unlike many big men, such as Shaq, Duncan is also a big part of
the pick-and-roll defense. He can "show"--jump at the ball
handler, then retreat and cover his man--or he can leave his man
and frantically double-team the ball. The Nets will test that
ability. They're certain to use Kenyon Martin as their pick man
in an attempt to draw Duncan out, and no guard in the league is
more adept than Kidd at forcing the action off a pick-and-roll.

--Duncan "closes out" well on shooters, something big men rarely
do. That means he charges out quickly to cover opponents on the
perimeter but not so quickly that he allows them to go by him.

--Duncan is an immovable object on defense, not in terms of sheer
bulk, like O'Neal, but in his ability to resist fakes. In the six
games of the Dallas series he had 18 blocks and only 22 personal
fouls, an enviable ratio for any big man. Watch for encounters
near the basket between Duncan and Kidd, who loves to take it
hard to the hoop.

Until this postseason the major blotch on Duncan's resume
involved his performances against the Lakers, which included
seven losses in eight postseason games in the previous two years.
Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson helpfully suggested to the Spurs
that their 1998-99 championship should bear an asterisk because
it was a strike-shortened season; O'Neal, MVP of the last three
Finals, likewise sniffed at Duncan's regular-season awards,
strongly implying that the important hardware is handed out in
June. In this year's Western Conference semifinal, though, Duncan
averaged 28.0 points and 11.8 rebounds against the Lakers, and
San Antonio's bloodlessly efficient 110-82 victory at L.A. in
Game 6 replaced that blotch with a gold star.

Beyond his free throw shooting, what blemishes are now evident in
the game of a player before whose name the words fundamentally
sound have been permanently attached? Backup center Kevin Willis,
who has spent 18 seasons with eight teams and who engages Duncan
in practice-session wars, considered the question for a full
minute. "Frankly," he said, "I'm baffled. Can't find anything."
The Nets were equally baffled, though perhaps they feared
divulging their plan for D-ing up T.D. "Free throws is about it,"
said Martin, who will spend considerable time pressing his
tattoos into Duncan's epidermis.

Surely there must be flaws, so we set out, Diogenes-like, to turn
a lantern on them. The search wasn't particularly fruitful. Spurs
reserve guard Steve Kerr, who won three titles with the Chicago
Bulls in the 1990s and another with San Antonio in '99, was the
only respondent to answer quickly, saying, "I think he could
improve a little with his left hand." (You must understand that
Kerr wants to be a coach someday--he'll be a good one--and is
therefore predisposed to nitpicking.) Spurs forward Malik Rose
said he couldn't think of any flaws, then snapped his fingers. "I
got it," he said. "He can't shoot his bank shot from the right
side as well as the left."

David Robinson, who is in his final season as Duncan's
in-the-paint playmate, shrugged his shoulders and said, "I guess
you could say he could improve his jumping ability. But,
ultimately, what's the difference? He gets every rebound that
comes into his hands and dunks over people."

Dallas forward Eduardo Najera, who was called upon to guard
Duncan from time to time in the Western final despite being four
inches smaller, laughed at the question. "He can go left, he can
go right, he can spin, he can back you in," Najera said. "You
think about pushing him out, but now he's hitting that midrange
shot all the time. All you can say is that he's not a great
three-point shooter." To which Mavericks assistant coach Avery
Johnson, a former Spurs teammate of Duncan's, added, "If Tim
starts making threes, we can all go home." (Before the Finals,
Duncan had attempted only 10 treys in the postseason, all of them
clock beaters, and made none.)

Raef LaFrentz, who guarded Duncan the majority of time in the
Western final, believes that he is the most "fundamentally sound
inside player in the world." Said LaFrentz, "Any small mistake,
any lapse in your thinking, he will make you pay. Some great
players, like Shaq, will take a possession or two off. Tim never
does. If I had to [point to] something, it's that he doesn't have
a lefthanded jump hook. But, then, I can't think of any bigs in
the league who can do a lot of things with their opposite hand.
Including me."

Duncan, predictably, reacted with wide-eyed surprise when it was
suggested to him that he doesn't have a lot to work on. "Nobody
is consistent enough to stop working," said Duncan. "For me,
Number 1, obviously, is my free throw shooting. Number 2 is
extending my range. I'm very hesitant to shoot outside of my
comfort zone, which is about 18 feet. Some guys talked about my
left hand? Well, they're right. But I'm weird in that respect. I
go through seasons when all I do is go left and finish left, but
this year I haven't done it at all. I'm just not comfortable with
it, and I've got to get back to it."

Duncan said that from the moment he picked up a basketball in his
native St. Croix he's been--yes--fundamentally sound. "That's
what's always worked for me," he said. "I don't think I
consciously set out to be that kind of player, but maybe I
realized right away that guys would have more athletic ability
than me."

Duncan expects that these Finals will be a vastly different
experience for him than they were in '99, when he was named MVP
after San Antonio's five-game conquest of the New York Knicks.
Back then, with a hale and hearty David Robinson at center and
that fiery preacher of a point guard named Avery Johnson running
the show, T.D. wasn't counted on to be the heart and soul of the
Spurs. Now he is. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich calls him "our
Joe Montana," both because the offense runs through him so often
and because he's the team's quiet leader. Even Duncan
acknowledges, "I know I'm the guy others will lean on."

There's no better reason to like the Spurs, which is why, after
seven games, they will be champions again.

For the latest NBA news plus analysis from Jack McCallum, go to
si.com/basketball.

COLOR PHOTO MONTAGE: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH; BACKGROUND BY BOB ROSATO [COVER] Who's Going to Stop TIM DUNCAN BY JACK McCALLUM THE FINALS NETS vs SPURS COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO PIVOTAL San Antonio wants to put the ball in Duncan's hands as often as possible so that he can either score from the post or hit the open man. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH HIGH STYLE Duncan defended deftly in the Western finals, disrupting the Mavericks without committing fouls. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN WHEN STARS COLLIDE The dishin' magician Kidd prevailed here in his first regular-season clash with Duncan, leading the Nets to a 91-82 November victory in New Jersey, but Duncan would score 21 points and grab 21 rebounds to lift the Spurs to a 92-78 win when they met again in San Antonio in March. FIVE COLOR PHOTOS: MANNY MILLAN (NETS, 5) FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (BOWEN, DUNCAN, ROBINSON, JACKSON) COLOR PHOTO: GREG NELSON (PARKER) COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN (HARRIS) x-men WHEN THEY'RE ON, HARRIS (LEFT) AND GINOBILI WIN GAMES. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (GINOBILI) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH BRING IT HOME Duncan's superior skill should enable the Spurs to win their second title.

MARQUEE EVENT
In a Finals packed with role players, the outcome hinges on the
two biggest names

An Eastern Conference scout sizes up what he calls "one of the
least talented Finals I can remember--each team has only one
superstar. We're down to Tim Duncan versus Jason Kidd, the best
players in each conference, with a lot of young role players
thrown in. Which of those stars proves to be more dominant will
determine who wins the championship." Here are the scout's views
on the head-to-head matchups of the starters.

RICHARD JEFFERSON, SF, Nets
Kidd gets him eight points a game on the fast break alone. In the
half-court Jefferson likes to drive for the dunk or take a
dribble or two and pull up. Look for Bowen, one of the most
physical defenders in the league, to crowd him. When Jefferson
drives, Bowen will back up to protect the basket, but he's quick
enough to still contest the jumper.

BRUCE BOWEN, SF, Spurs
If 29 teams had their choice of Jefferson or Bowen, 28 would
choose Jefferson. But who has the advantage in this series? I
think Bowen's defense will negate Jefferson, who's a big part of
the Nets' offense. And Bowen led the league in
three-point-shooting percentage, which means Jefferson won't be
able to leave him to help out on Duncan.

ADVANTAGE: SPURS

KENYON MARTIN, PF, Nets
Martin has had an excellent postseason, but that's about to end.
There's no way--no way--he can guard Duncan, who can shoot over
him or punish him on the low block. I give Martin credit for
wanting the challenge of covering him, but it's too much. I don't
see Martin hurting Duncan at the other end either, except when
the Nets are out on the break.

TIM DUNCAN, PF, Spurs
People are right to talk about how much Kidd helps his teammates,
but you can say the same about Duncan. When he's doubled or
tripled, he makes the smart pass for an open jumper. That's given
the other Spurs a lot of confidence and has allowed the team to
be better than the sum of its parts. Whether he's at the four or
the five, he's the focus of everything they do.

ADVANTAGE: SPURS

JASON COLLINS, C, Nets
Collins is the Nets' fifth option; if he gives them six to 10
points, that's a huge lift. Yet the Spurs have to keep an eye on
him because he can hit the jumper from the elbow and he's so
active on the boards. He's been effective on the offensive glass
because he's much bigger than the centers in the East--but he
won't be able to rebound over Robinson.

DAVID ROBINSON, C, Spurs
At 37 he isn't very active. How effective he is has a lot less to
do with his opponent than with how much energy he has in his
legs, so having almost a week off before the Finals should help
him. If he scores on a put-back or two early on, that could mean
he has enough in the tank for a 14-to 20-point game. Otherwise,
it'll be one of those nights he looks his age.

ADVANTAGE: NONE

KERRY KITTLES, SG, Nets
He's the Nets' best outside shooter, the main guy you have to
pick up in transition because he can kill you with spot-up
threes. In every game there's a short stretch when they run him
off screens to establish his jump shot and force the defense to
pay attention to him. That gives them balance, stretches out the
defense and helps open things up.

STEPHEN JACKSON, SG, Spurs
The Nets didn't re-sign Jackson in 2001, and I imagine he'll be
juiced up to play against them. The biggest difference in his
game since he's come to the Spurs is that he's improved his shot
and can knock down the three. Then, when you go out to guard him,
he can get by you. On defense Jackson can be exploited off the
dribble or in the low post.

ADVANTAGE: NETS

JASON KIDD, PG, Nets
The only way the Nets have a chance is if Kidd dominates Parker
and gets in his head so that his decision making suffers. And
Kidd can dominate in all sorts of ways--by making steals, by
hitting the key shots. Kidd isn't a great shooter, but when he's
hitting he becomes almost unstoppable. I'm sure they'll take
advantage of his size and post him up on Parker.

TONY PARKER, PG, Spurs
Even though Parker is only 21, he's a tough guy. Early on in
their first-round series against Phoenix, it looked as if Stephon
Marbury was going to manhandle him, but Parker recovered and got
the upper hand. Kidd will lay off him to cut off the passing
lanes, especially on entry passes to Duncan, so Parker has to
keep his turnovers down--and hit his jumper.

ADVANTAGE: NETS

The Better BENCH MARK?
The well-stocked Spurs will come at the Nets in waves

The Nets' reserve corps has one thing the Spurs' does not--a
genuine folk hero in the 6'9" person of Brian (Veal) Scalabrine,
whose infrequent entrances usually produce an ovation from the
home crowd. Otherwise, the New Jersey bench, which may offer as
few as three real contributors during the Finals, pales in
comparison with San Antonio's.

The X factor for the Nets is Lucious Harris, a streak-shooting
guard who defends tenaciously and, most important, brings a
warrior mentality. But his opposite number, the Spurs' 6'6"
rookie Manu Ginobili, is as feisty as Harris and a better player.
Coach Gregg Popovich still frets about Ginobili's penchant for
forcing shots and passes, but his energy and athleticism will be
needed to a) stymie the Nets' transition game; b) give backcourt
starters Tony Parker and Stephen Jackson and small forward Bruce
Bowen a break from guarding Jason Kidd; and c) create half-court
activity when Duncan is multiteamed.

New Jersey's Rodney Rogers can launch three-point shots better
than just about any broad-shouldered power forward in recent
memory. But undersized Malik Rose, San Antonio's top frontcourt
reserve, more than counters Rogers's outside game with his
aggressive post-up moves and his offensive rebounding. The Spurs
don't have a perfect answer for 6'9" Aaron Williams, a quiet and
undervalued frontcourtman who chases every loose ball, rebounds
diligently and hits the midrange jumper if teams slough off him.
But look for 40-year-old Kevin Willis, one of several Spurs
graybeards, to collect some hard fouls and toss a few elbows in
what will probably be his final shot at a championship.

The Nets have counted on one other bench player for brief
stretches--Anthony Johnson, the backup point guard who sometimes
gets New Jersey out of its offense by launching ill-advised
jumpers. San Antonio, on the other hand, has a steady backup
backup at that position in 37-year-old Steve Kerr, who dashed
into a phone booth, slipped into a cape and three-point-bombed
the Mavericks out of Game 6 of the Western finals. Popovich says
he has no plans to give Kerr significant minutes against New
Jersey, but here's betting that he changes his mind. Speedy
Claxton, Parker's principal backup at point guard, will also be
needed: He's a transition player, and this could be a transition
series.

The most interesting bench question for the Nets is whether they
will hire a crane to hoist up the creaky 36-year-old body of
Dikembe Mutombo, a four-time defensive player of the year who was
sidelined most of the season with a torn ligament in his right
wrist and has been little more than a 7'2" ornament on the New
Jersey bench during the playoffs. "The Nets have to be tempted to
use Mutombo to harass Duncan," said one NBA scout, "but he's too
much of a liability on offense unless they think they can play in
the half-court with four guys." Against a team as complete as the
Spurs, that wouldn't be a good idea. --J.M.

"Some great players, LIKE SHAQ, will take a possession or two
off," says the Mavs' LaFrentz. "Tim never does."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)