For as long as he has been a professional athlete-17 years and counting- Tim Duncan has done everything right. He has scored. He has rebounded. He has led. He has been the best player on his team. He has taken less money. He has remained in a small market. He has been a beloved teammate. He has won consistently. He has been quiet but gracious. He has embraced the concept of team.
But success is forgotten when failure is the last thing we remember. Perhaps it is unfair that a superlative career can be reduced to two things. A running hook shot that missed to the right. A tip in that was so far off the mark it was a shocking sight. Did Tim Duncan just miss that? Did the shot even touch the rim? The score should have been tied with 48 seconds left. It wasn’t. The Spurs should have won the 2013 NBA Finals. They didn’t. Tim Duncan should have ring #5. He doesn’t.
This is what happened to Tim Duncan in game 7, other than the fatigue and tension and excitement of playing one game for the title. He missed a shot he has made hundreds of times. He missed a tip in he has made hundreds of times. If it happened in any other game, if it happened in any other situation, if it happened in any other month, if it happened with no one watching, perhaps the memory of Tim Duncan’s two easy misses would have faded into one of those stories that are recycled in a bar. Remember when Tim Duncan almost beat the Heat? But it wasn’t any other game. It wasn’t a blurry night in Cleveland or a humid Sunday in Orlando or an empty arena in Atlanta. It was game 7. It was the NBA Finals. It was against the Miami Heat. And it was a shot that would have tied the game with 48 seconds left. Just think about what would have happened had Tim Duncan’s running hook went in. Or if his tip in evened the score. Or if he shook off the defensive effort of Shane Battier who is six inches shorter than he.
What-if’s dot the landscape of sports. Tim Duncan did miss the running hook. And he did miss the layup. And he did not get his fifth ring. Jeff Van Gundy called it a “point blank miss.” Tim was left with the detritus, with the wound, with the damaged flesh. A sorrowful offseason with an unbearable memory was forthcoming. Of all the shots he has made over his career, the most important shot barely touched the iron.
Given the same situation in this year’s NBA Finals Tim Duncan may not miss. He may make those same shots. But there is no such thing as a do-over. Tim cannot get back that last minute of game 7. He cannot make the pain of it disappear. He cannot act as if it was a bad dream even if that is how it all still feels. He cannot be Tim Duncan the hero if he can’t accept Tim Duncan the unlucky one. And yet neither are exactly true either, not in a career as long as his. He has been lucky so many times before. A couple of minutes earlier Tim Duncan cut a Heat six point lead to three. His next shot was a jump hook at the rim that he missed. Two minutes were left in the game. Mario Chalmers missed two free throws. Chris Bosh turned the ball over. So it wasn’t just the Spurs that were feeling the pressure. With over a minute left and the Spurs trailing by 2 Kawhi Leonard missed a long range shot, a three pointer. Dwayne Wade missed a jumper as did Shane Battier. That set up the moment for Tim Duncan. It was 90-88, Miami Heat.
Tim Duncan has looked death in the eye before. Yet he has failed to succumb, he has willed his body and his skill to take over. He did not panic, one can assume that much. He drove across the lane with Shane Battier fighting him for position. The shot wasn’t close. It missed to the right. Duncan recovered but his tip in was too strong and missed badly too. The Spurs would not score again.
Then it was Lebron James turn. The irony was spellbinding. Lebron did what Tim Duncan could not do, he scored. Lebron James who had the label of someone who would freeze in the closing seconds smoothly hit the last jump shot of game 7. Lebron James made the last shot of the 2013 NBA season. For the Spurs there was nothing left but tears.
Of course Tim Duncan has company in his attempt to stop a ghost. Doc Rivers had his team up 3-2 in the 2010 NBA Finals. The last two games were in L.A. In game 6 the Celtics mailed it in, scoring 67 points and losing by 22. In game 7 the Celtics led for 33 minutes. They were up by 13 and in the 4th quarter were outrebounded by 5 and outscored by 8. It was a loss so painful, Doc Rivers, four years later, still cannot bear to look at the 2010 Lakers championship banner.
When Tim Duncan said, “We will do it this time”, it had nothing to do with slighting the Miami Heat. It had everything to do with blood. Because the Spurs began bleeding the night of June 20th. They have not stopped. They want to make sure they get it right this time. Duncan was being a leader, one who still has the scar tissue as a reminder of what happens when you let an opportunity pass. Part of that is on him, on Tim Duncan. Opportunities, though, are not like trains. They don’t come every five minutes. If Tim Duncan knows anything he knows that moments to change the course of history happen less often than you think. He had it. It was his chance. Perhaps he was tired. After all he missed a previous jump hook at the rim. Perhaps his adrenaline put too much arc on the ball. Or perhaps it was one of those bad shots all players make that they want to take back.
Tim Duncan, when he decides to retire, will leave the NBA as an iconic figure. A 5th ring will put him in rare air leading to the argument of ‘best player of his generation’. His team success was the most consistent of any other NBA player. He has more MVP trophies than Kobe Bryant. He has one less All-NBA selection (14) than Kobe. It may just come down to what each of them did in Game 7 in the NBA Finals. Tim missed two shots in a row that would have given his team the lead. Against the Celtics, Kobe had an awful shooting night, 6-24. But he had 15 rebounds, more than any other Celtic player. He made the game winning play, an assist to Metta World Peace that sealed the victory for ring #5.
There is a thin line between winning and losing. Tim Duncan could be entering the Finals as the defending champion. But he is not. This is not the same situation as last year. The Heat team is not the same. Neither are the Spurs. What happened last year was…last year. But the ghost of it lingers, it remains, it haunts the Spurs as they try to do something as historical as preventing the Heat from 3-peating. It will be historical for Tim Duncan as well. To win titles 15 years apart, that is mind boggling. To shake off the bad memories of Game 7, 2013 and win his fifth ring will be a stunning achievement, an all time best for a player who has had one epic performance after another.