New York Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy was adamant after Game 1 of the NBA Finals that "no man on earth" could stop San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan one-on-one. That just might be true.
Duncan scored 25 points tonight in Game 2, leading the Spurs to an 80-67 victory and a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
San Antonio has not lost in the playoffs since Game 2 of their first-round series against the Minnesota Timberwolves, winning 12 in a row. A big part of that success has been Duncan, whose nickname around the team is Merlin -- as in the wizard.
Nothing could be more appropriate.
Take, for example, Duncan's putback of a missed free throw in the third quarter. Spurs forward Sean Elliott was attempting to complete a three-point play, but his foul shot rimmed out. Duncan was there, as if by magic, to give his team a 56-49 lead.
"The referee was taking to me and Latrell [Sprewell] because we had our arms locked," Knicks forward Marcus Camby said. "He was saying, `Move down, move down' and the next thing you know, Duncan was able to sneak in there and get the shot."
The Knicks tried double-teaming Duncan, sometimes attacking and sometimes backing off. They tried to sneak a guard around him on the baseline. They even tried putting Larry Johnson on Elliott, planning to drop him off to double Duncan with two big men.
"They played a better game defensively," Duncan said. "They double-teamed a little more and were more physical in the post. I missed a couple of shots in pretty close."
Not that many. He was 9 for 17, making him one of only two players in the game to shoot better than 50 percent. The other was David Robinson, who was 5 for 8.
Nothing much the Knicks tried worked against Duncan, not even a head-on collision under the New York basket with 9 minutes 43 seconds left in the first quarter. He staggered to the side as the Spurs went on a fast break, but refused to come out of the game.
When the Knicks -- whose last lead was 13-12 with 6:18 left in the first quarter -- closed within 61-55 with 7:32 left in the game, the Spurs went to Duncan. He spun into a triple team, but drew a foul on Kurt Thomas and made both free throws.
Sprewell answered with a pair of free throws, but when three Knicks collapsed on Duncan at the other end, he found Robinson cutting to the basket for an uncontested slam to make it 65-57. Moments later, Robinson drilled a 16-footer.
If New York had any hopes at the end, he snuffed them with a slam off a lob pass from Avery Johnson with 1:28 remaining. That made it 71-61.
Duncan had a little sympathy for the Knicks, who are without center Patrick Ewing.
"It's tough for them because not only is Pat down and LJ [Johnson] a little hobbled, but now Chris Dudley's a little hurt," he said. "It's got to be tough for 'em because our size is so much better than theirs."
Duncan's soft feelings for the Knicks won't last long. Even a second-year man knows what Van Gundy observed after the game.
"One of the biggest things I've learned in the NBA -- there's no mercy," Van Gundy said.
CAPTION: Not even 3 Knicks -- Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, Charlie Ward -- can keep Tim Duncan in check.