For all of the beauty and precision in Tim Duncan's game, there is one deficiency that prevents him from being the player who can dominate this series for San Antonio. Players around the league see it on videotape. Duncan's teammates see it, too, but they say nothing to him about it because everything else in his arsenal rates a 10. Even Hall of Fame coaches whisper about the one weak link in his game.
He does not fight hard enough for position down low against physical teams. He is not stubborn, persistent or nasty enough yet to simply outwork a Ben Wallace or an Antonio McDyess on the blocks in order to receive an easy entry pass for a layup. He floats and wanders instead of backing his rump down and sealing his defender off. That chink in his armor is killing the San Antonio Spurs in this series.
Before the Spurs' chances for a third championship in seven years wither completely, here's one piece of advice for the player dubbed the most complete big man in pro basketball:
Get to the rim, Tim. Whatever it takes.
When Detroit reserve guard Lindsey Hunter scores 17 points and you finish with 16, it is not a good night for your team or a good omen for the final two or three games of the NBA Finals. Duncan was not dreadful, but his team was in a 102-71 drubbing at the Palace of Auburn Hills. All Detroit, all even.
"It's a very physical game," a morose Duncan said after he finished 5 of 17 from the field and 6 of 9 from the free throw line. "Those guys throw a lot of bodies into you, and each with their own little style. Some are physical, some are loose or whatever it may be."
Still, Duncan could combat Ben Wallace, McDyess and Rasheed Wallace with one style of play: extremely aggressive. He needs to forget about the bank shot and the finger-roll and lower his shoulder, put his head down and take the ball hard to the goal until he either scores, bleeds or both. Nothing else is working or will do. Not against this team of ruffians, not in this impossibly loud building, in which fans stood and screamed for much of the fourth quarter of Game 4.
Chick Hearn, the late, great Lakers announcer used to say, during particularly physical games, "No harm, no foul, no ambulance."
Spurs-Pistons is a no-harm, no-ambulance series, a physically grueling seven-game scrap for the world heavyweight championship of hoop. Ben Wallace knows this. Rasheed, too. It's why 'Sheed had gold-plated, gaudy, championship boxing belts made for himself and his teammates. Wallace has this belt above his locker-room cubicle, showing it off as if he has just knocked out one of the Klitschko brothers.
'Sheed has bought into the notion that he plays on a team of fighters, not on a team of finesse players. It is why the second installment of the Bad Boys knotted the NBA finals at 2 games apiece on Thursday night before the loudest mob in the league.
Duncan is often a finesse player, a wonderfully skilled pivot who understands the geometry of the game -- from what spot to kiss an 18-foot bank shot off the glass to exactly how much trajectory and distance is needed to swish a 7-foot jump hook. That skill -- along with flawless footwork and fundamentals and the unflappable demeanor -- enabled Duncan to win two titles and two MVPs. But they cannot help him or the Spurs against the nasty, ornery and unwavering Pistons.
Detroit has interrupted the ballet with a brawl for the NBA title. The Pistons did it by moving Duncan away from the basket and forcing the guy who came in as the best player in the series into a Motown confidence meltdown. On Tuesday night in Game 3, he scored a paltry 14 points on 5 of 15 shooting. On a night the Spurs desperately needed Duncan to quell this growing Pistons momentum, he wilted again.
On back-to-back possessions at the end of the first half, Duncan received the ball about 8 feet from the basket and ended up taking 12-foot fadeaways. Not that he is expected to spin and dunk on Wallace like Shaquille O'Neal. But his inability to get to the line, to make Ben Wallace fall for the occasional pump fake or up-and-under move, just played right into Detroit's hands in Game 4.
Sean Elliott had never seen Tim Duncan take such bad shots, look so out of kilter in a big game. Elliott, Duncan's former teammate in San Antonio and now a television analyst for the Spurs, publicly called Duncan's Game 3 performance "his worst in the playoffs."
"He was pushed out of the post by Ben Wallace, he was taking jab steps and trying to fake defenders out with his bank shot instead of just catching and shooting," Elliott said. "Tim was out of his element."
Will Duncan and the Spurs regroup before the Pistons repeat? Maybe. But it's all about how he plays on Sunday night in Game 5 here. As polished and productive as Duncan's game is, the problem with his style of play is that it can be taken away or nullified by a trio of big, banging bodies. The Pistons are putting a body on Duncan every time he goes up for a shot. They have turned these Finals into a meet-me-behind-the-cafeteria, after-school scrap.
Tim Duncan and his team are turning the other cheek. Until he fights back, uses his forearms and elbows as much as his wrists and legs -- puts his head down and gets to the rim -- there will be no wresting this title from Detroit.
He needs to fight and hold his position down low -- he needs to fix the one broken part of his game -- for San Antonio to claim the title. It's a lot to ask with no more than three games left in a long, grueling season. But it's the only way Duncan will ever be considered the best player of his generation. After two disheartening performances in Detroit, today he is not even the best player in this series.