THERE WAS much to savor in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals last Saturday in San Antonio: Phoenix Suns center Amaré Stoudemire threw down a half-dozen vicious dunks; guard Joe Johnson, two weeks removed from an operation to repair a broken orbital bone above his left eye, scored 15 gutsy points for Phoenix while wearing a protective mask; Manu Ginobili, the Spurs' 6'6" human cyclone, grabbed a rebound from his knees; point guard Tony Parker blazed through the lane for a variety of acrobatic layups as his girlfriend, Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria, cheered him on in a tight, white SPURS tank top.
Oh, yes. Tim Duncan played too.
By the end of San Antonio's 102-92 win, which gave the Spurs a 3-0 series lead, Duncan was only one point shy of Stoudemire's 34 despite taking 13 fewer shots (30 to 17). Duncan also had game highs for free throws (15), rebounds (15), blocked shots (three) and bad ankles (two). Yet somehow the 7-footer blended into the scenery--"just like he always does," says Spurs assistant P.J. Carlesimo.
Duncan had 15 points and 16 rebounds on Monday night at the SBC Center, but behind Stoudemire's 31 points and his spectacular, last-minute block of a Duncan dunk, Phoenix prevailed 111-106 to avert a sweep. Still, even Longoria's desperation could not begin to match that of the Suns, who, after achieving the league's winningest regular-season record, faced elimination in Wednesday's Game 5. At 29, Duncan was poised to play for his third title in seven seasons.
Having sprained both ankles since March, Duncan seems to lumber more than run. Still, he usually beats his man down the court and rarely makes a mistake in transition, even when he handles the ball. He doesn't have a signature move because he has so many he can rely on: a face-up jumper off the glass (usually from the left side), a turnaround righthander, a scoop across the lane with either hand, an unblockable half hook. Steven Hunter, the Suns' energetic backup center, grew so frustrated trying to stop Duncan during Saturday's second half that he looked as if he were about to break down and cry. Steven, dude, your fellow big men feel for you. Duncan doesn't look that hard to defend, but he is.
A 66.4% foul shooter during the last two postseasons, Duncan set a Spurs playoff record by hitting 15 of 15 free throws in Game 3--despite taking so long to hoist his shots that a USGA official might have walked onto the floor and penalized him for slow play. "I used to hurry my free throws because I just wanted to get off the line," he said afterward, "but now I've found a setup and a routine I'm comfortable with." Well, not completely. Duncan made only 3 of 12 free throws on Monday, a significant factor in San Antonio's loss. His ongoing struggles from 15 feet somehow endow him with a measure of humanity: Hey, there's something Tim Duncan doesn't do with precision.
As he stood at the line in the dying moments of Game 3, a chant of M-V-P! arose from the crowd, a paean to the Spurs star as well as a shot at the man who claimed that award this season, Suns point guard Steve Nash. (Duncan finished fourth in the voting.) But if San Antonio goes on to win its third title, Duncan will be the favorite to be named MVP of the Finals, as he was in 1999 and 2003. No matter how hard he tries to blend in, sometimes he does get noticed. --Jack McCallum