You can have Shaq, you can have Allen Iverson, you can have Kobe Bryant or any of those between-the-legs, double-clutching, crossing-over, 360-spinning, highlight-making players you would like. In fact, you can have all of them. Just give me Tim Duncan.
Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy had it right one hour before Game 1 of the NBA Finals when he told reporters, "I don't know that anybody matches up well with Tim Duncan."
The New York Knicks certainly don't have anybody. Duncan is too tall, too agile, has too many skills, moves too well, thinks too quickly and studies the game too closely to come up on the short end of matchups with anybody. And the Knicks, from first impressions, don't have anybody who can even make him sweat. Unless there's some miracle cure for what ails Patrick Ewing's Achilles' tendon, the Knicks -- down 0-1 in this championship series -- are in trouble.
Duncan is what happens when a great talent stays in college long enough to learn how to play basketball. He dominated Game 1 with some low-post moves straight out of the Kevin McHale handbook, hit jumpers like Jack Sikma, threw up a couple of Kareem's hooks, blocked a couple of shots like Bill Russell and had time to do some Moses Malone-style dirty work to boot. Duncan's line: 33 points on 13-for-21 shooting, 16 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, 2 steals.
Some of his work came against 6-foot-11 Chris Dudley, some came against 6-11 Marcus Camby, some against 6-9 Kurt Thomas, some against 6-6 Larry Johnson, who on two good knees even before his back injury couldn't have wanted any part of Duncan's combination of power and finesse. We would be looking forward to a wonderful series if Ewing could play David Robinson and Camby/Dudley/Thomas could marshal their forces just to deal with Duncan. But if L.J. has to play quality minutes man-to-man on Duncan, boys and girls, this isn't going to take a real long time.
There was one sequence when the Spurs dumped the ball to Duncan down in the low post. Duncan found himself isolated against Johnson. The Knicks, sensing the mismatch, sent two more players to help Johnson. I think they call that a triple team. You know how many players in the NBA are worthy of triple-teaming? Since the retirement of Michael Jordan? None.
But here's what makes Duncan so special. Instead of forcing some macho, bump-and-grind move a la Shaq, Duncan quickly got the ball out to Sean Elliott, who drew one defender, then fired the ball right back to Duncan, who made a quick turnaround jumper over L.J., who had no idea what hit him.
Poor L.J. This is a man's reward for hobbling out on a bum knee when he should have been at home soaking in a tub? "Okay, I know you're on one leg, but see if you can stop the league's best player as long as you're out there, big fella."
Van Gundy confirmed before the game what some had suspected all along: Larry Johnson would play.
Nobody has ever questioned Johnson's want-to. "He's very tough," Van Gundy said, understating the matter more than a bit. "It's Larry's decision, but if the doctor told me he couldn't I wouldn't let him, even if he wanted. . . . I didn't want it to be where he felt the burden that he had to play. I wanted him to be effective."
But there was also the simple matter of the Knicks needing big bodies, or in Johnson's case, relative to the Spurs, a semi-big body. Anything he could give the Knicks would be greatly appreciated, given the front-court advantage the Spurs have in this matchup.
Sometimes the notion of matchups gets overplayed. Not here. The Spurs are in the NBA Finals because Duncan is the best player in the league and Robinson has replaced Scottie Pippen as the league's best support player; guys such as Elliott, Avery Johnson and Jaren Jackson have filled in where needed.
You know how Jackson was able to hit five three-pointers and score 17 points? Defenders wind up gravitating toward Duncan like he is a magnet, and Jackson wound up open. But Jackson didn't start firing until Duncan had established his inside game; 14 of his 17 came in the second half. It has been happening all season, playing inside-out basketball like a dream. "We've got to take away Jaren Jackson," Van Gundy said. "We can't give him those threes."
The Spurs needed nearly two quarters to get going because of the rust that had accumulated after nine days of not playing a game. But they didn't get anxious when Robinson and Duncan stumbled a little bit coming out of the block. Quality size wears almost everybody down.
And the discouraging thing for the Knicks is that their big men were pretty darn effective. Dudley didn't hit any shots but he played great defense in the first half. Camby got himself in foul trouble but still got 10 points and six rebounds in 23 minutes. And Thomas scored 13 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in an impressive 31 minutes off the bench. They held Robinson to three field goals and 13 points and still the inside battle went to the Spurs. Because of Duncan.
So what are the Knicks to do? There's no secret weapon to bring in off the bench. My buddy from Wisconsin suggested the Knicks should fly in Reggie White to heal Ewing. Van Gundy's first thought was, "We've got to cut everybody else out," meaning, let Duncan and Robinson get theirs but close out Jackson and Mario Elie and Avery Johnson and Elliott.
That also presumes that Duncan can't go for 40 and make up for whatever the others don't get. "Those guys in the paint do such a good job of making you become a jump-shooting team," Van Gundy said, ticking off another of his team's problems. "The biggest thing they do is clog the lane. We played against three good shot blockers the first three series, but never two on the floor at the same time. . . . I'm going to sit there tonight and think, study 'em, look at 'em on film. We're going to have to have better answers."