Perhaps they didn't know about him in Queens or on the East Side. Maybe they didn't believe he was as good as advertised. Certainly, those cynical New Yorkers would want to see for themselves. Aren't Texans prone to exaggeration?
And then the New York Knicks saw Tim Duncan for themselves. San Antonio's unstoppable second-year center used Game 1 of the NBA Finals as his personal stage, and the Spurs rode him to a 89-77 victory tonight in front of a roaring crowd of 39,514 at the Alamodome.
Duncan finished a dazzling performance with 33 points and 16 rebounds, scoring at will against anyone and everyone the undermanned Knicks threw at him. Center David Robinson added 13 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists, giving San Antonio more than half its points from its twin seven-footers.
"He's the best player in the league," Knicks forward Marcus Camby said of Duncan. "We had a hard time stopping those two guys."
With Patrick Ewing sidelined for the series and with Larry Johnson playing with a sore knee and Kurt Thomas and Camby spending much of the evening in foul trouble, the Knicks simply ran out of bodies and fell behind 1-0 in this best-of-seven series. The Spurs won their 11th straight playoff game, which tied the NBA record.
"It was the war we expected," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said. "Both teams look to grind it out and hope to be the team standing at the end. We were a little rusty at the beginning, but by the second half, we were playing pretty well."
The Spurs were playing for the first time in 10 days, and they appeared rusty in the first quarter when they fell behind by six and shot just 39 percent. However, they re-discovered their game in the second quarter, held the Knicks to 10 points and had an eight-point lead at the half.
"After the first quarter, things started to turn around," Duncan said. "It took a quarter to get everything going and a half to get back to where we were."
Duncan and Robinson were so good that the Spurs didn't need much of anything else. Most of what else they needed came from former Georgetown Hoya Jaren Jackson, who came off the bench to drill five three-pointers and 17 points in all.
The Knicks got 19 points apiece from Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston, but very little from anyone else. With Robinson and Duncan clogging the middle, the Knicks shot just 38 percent and lost their poise when the Spurs closed the first half with a 14-2 run.
Duncan was at his best in the second quarter, when he and Robinson scored 18 of San Antonio's 24 points. Duncan had nine as the Spurs finished with that 14-2 sprint that opened up a 45-37 halftime lead.
Meanwhile, the Knicks missed 15 of their 18 shots in the second quarter and were barely in the game after that. The Knicks twice closed to within six in the fourth quarter, but Jackson's three-pointer with eight minutes left finished New York for good. When Duncan spun into the lane and scored on Thomas with five minutes remaining for an 82-68 lead, Game 1 had been decided.
"In the second half, we looked frantic," Houston said. "We lost our poise a little bit. We hadn't made mental mistakes like that."
The Knicks got virtually nothing around the basket and were left to rely on the jump shooting of Sprewell (9 of 24) and Houston (7 of 17).
The Knicks couldn't have hoped for a better beginning. First came the pleasant surprise of having Johnson (5 points, 1 rebound in 21 minutes) in the starting lineup. And then the first quarter played out exactly as Coach Jeff Van Gundy hoped. He said the Knicks could not compete unless they contested every shot and won the boards. They did just that, holding the Spurs to 39 percent shooting in the quarter and dominating the rebounding, 15-7.
Johnson played only two minutes before going to the bench with two fouls, but Thomas (13 points, 16 rebounds) came off the bench to score six points and grab seven rebounds in the first quarter.
The Knicks got their first lead, 19-17, and led 27-21 at the end of the first quarter. The game changed completely in the second quarter. The Spurs shook off whatever rust came from the layoff just as the Knicks went cold. New York missed its first six shots of the second quarter while the Spurs were getting a basket from Duncan, a three-pointer from Jackson and a foul shot from Robinson to tie it at 27, with 8:16 remaining.
The Knicks led 35-31 on Houston's jumper with 4:12 remaining, and that was it. The Spurs outscored the Knicks 14-2 to take charge. Sprewell led a New York rally that got the Knicks within 71-63 at the end of the third quarter. The Knicks twice closed to within six in the early moments of the fourth quarter.
But Jackson's three-pointer with eight minutes left made it 77-68.
"It wasn't easy," Duncan said. "Those guys played hard. It's tough for them because they're hurt, but we just have to keep going."
CAPTION: New York's Chris Childs (21) watches Tim Duncan take the low road against Chris Dudley during Spurs' Game 1 victory in NBA Finals in San Antonio.
CAPTION: Knicks' Kurt Thomas (13 points, 16 rebounds) gets hacked across the face by Mario Elie. Spurs' David Robinson had 13 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists.