There, he said it, he did it, he opened his wound to the public. For one of the few times in his illustrious career, Spurs forward Tim Duncan shared his thoughts – his raw, uncensored, unfiltered emotions – with millions of television viewers who, five days later, are still lifting their jaws off the floor.
Charles Barkley. Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. Michael Jordan. Shaq. Kobe. All were accomplished trash-talkers and master conversationalists and equally adept at uttering provocative soundbites. No one understood this at the time, of course, but the best players of their generations were precocious precursors of the social media revolution, superstars who brought fans along on their journey long before the world spun into a 24/7 talking, tweeting, photographing universe.
But Timmy? The St. Croix native who spent his boyhood submerged in the Caribbean, amassing swim records and savoring his solitude? Duncan craves privacy, one very compelling reason San Antonio has been his playground paradise for the better part of two decades. TV soundbites. Talk radio. Bulletin board material for his opponents. That has never been his style, which is why his uncharacteristic candor when the Spurs secured an NBA Finals rematch against the Miami Heat generated so much attention.
The Spurs blew it, they own it, they want another shot. He said it, loud and clear.
“It’s unbelievable to regain that focus after that devastating loss that we had last year,” Duncan told TNT sideline reporter David Aldridge after the Spurs eliminated Oklahoma City on Saturday. “But we’re back here. We’ve got four more (games) to win. We’ll do it this time. We’re happy it’s the Heat again. We’ve got that bad taste in our mouth still.”
Duncan wants it that badly. Revenge, redemption, atonement, perhaps even permission to retire in peace with a handful of NBA championship rings. The Big Fundamental is sprouting gray hairs, slimmer than ever to relieve pressure on his creaky knees, and at 38 returning to the NBA Finals with a new nickname: Old Man River Walk.
This is the rematch that had to happen, that threatens to overflow with story lines. These are the two best organizations in the NBA, starting at the top, with stable ownership by the Heat’s Micky Arison and the Spurs’ Peter Holt. The front offices are run by the legendary Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich (and the powerful behind-the-scenes presence of R.C. Buford). The rosters are immensely talented, if contrasting, with Riley consistently adding and subtracting players to complement superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and Popovich and Buford nurturing the aging Spurs into more of an ensemble cast, with Duncan, Manu Ginobili and the ailing Tony Parker (ankle) bolstered by Danny Green, Boris Diaw and emerging young star Kawhi Leonard.
The Spurs are older, but wiser, too. Less dependent on Duncan in the low post, Popovich increasingly emphasizes spacing, screening and exquisite ball movement, demands his players pass up good shots and find teammates for even better looks; he is openly disdainful of isolation sets and one-on-one play. Accordingly, the Spurs led the league in assists and three-point shooting, and finished sixth in scoring while remaining among the better defensive clubs.
Their immediate concerns are obvious: Parker’s ankle injury and the formidable presence of James. If Parker, the player Duncan refers to as “French Boy,” is anything less than 75-80 percent, his speed and ability to penetrate and make plays severely compromised, the offense will limp along, become suffocated by the Heat’s length and swarming defense.
And again? Why would anyone ever bet against James? The best player on the planet hears Riley whispering “three-peat” and wants to hold up three fingers, too. He also keeps hearing that the Heat was outplayed during most of last year’s championship series, which is pretty much a given. A bounce here, a different call there, and the Spurs would have celebrated their fifth title since 1999.
If not quite a dynasty, San Antonio is the NBA’s small-market miracle, the old-school franchise with the futuristic approach. Analytics. Scouting. Dominance in the international talent market. Shrewd salary cap management and financial discipline. Drafting a franchise player (Duncan) and hiring and retaining the league’s premier coach (Popovich) hasn’t hurt, either.
The Spurs have to be the sentimental favorites, James’ magnificence notwithstanding. There is something about redemption stories that is irresistible. As Riley long ago said, there is winning and there is misery: The Spurs led by five points and were within 28 seconds of the title in Game 6. They were on the cusp again in Game 7 but again failed to close out the defending champs. They walked out of the arena and spent most of the year staring in the mirror, bruised and battered, pointing fingers into their chests, and looking to their leader for answers.
“I talk to Pop all the time, and losing that series was the worst thing that ever happened to him,” said Don Nelson, the Hall of Fame coach and one of Popovich’s closest friends. “He was crushed. Probably still is. His biggest regret was that he took Duncan out for that (Game 6) sequence, then not getting the offensive rebound, then Ray Allen making that shot. He considers that his mistake. But guys missed free throws, layups. I just keep telling him to get over it. Yesterday is gone, and tomorrow’s a mystery. And how can you not root for the Spurs? They don’t have that dominating player anymore, but as far as enjoying watching a great team, nobody plays the game better than San Antonio.”