Everything about sports is today. Yesterday's greatness becomes irrelevant quick and in a hurry if you don't repeat it today. It wasn't enough for Tim Duncan to be first-team all-NBA every year he's been in the league, not when he missed six free throws and what should have been a dunk down the stretch in Game 5. It wasn't enough that Duncan had already earned MVP honors in two NBA Finals, not when he missed half his free throws and didn't get a shot late in defeat in Game 6.
Nobody's immune from the demands of right now, not even great players, not even the best players of their generation. For the first time in his career, Duncan felt the sting of criticism because he didn't play great in important games. He didn't play like Tim Duncan, didn't play like a guy with two championship rings. And San Antonio had little to no chance at all to take back the title belt from the Pistons if he continued to play the way he had lately. A nice, workmanlike effort wasn't going to be enough for San Antonio to win Game 7.
We've become spoiled over the years when it comes to the NBA playoffs and the Finals specifically. Bill Russell and Jerry West spoiled us. John Havlicek and Wilt spoiled us. Kareem and Doc spoiled us, as did Magic and Bird, as did Olajuwon and Michael Jordan. They summoned their best when the game was as frantic and as desperate as imaginable, in the games that unleash so much tension that lesser players shrink. What this series demanded was a great player being great in that rare animal, Game 7 of the Finals.
And Duncan, with a whole lot of us wondering what was going on with him, answered the only way that matters: He won the game. He demanded the ball the way Moses Malone used to call for it. He made hooks, he got loose for a dunk here and there, he got knocked down and got up to demand the ball again. He grabbed offensive rebounds. Duncan's numbers weren't pretty like they often are in the regular season. He made 10 of 27 shots, which is a line you associate with Allen Iverson more than Duncan. But Detroit doesn't allow pretty. The Pistons will hit you with a crowbar if you try to play pretty. Duncan missed way more shots than he made. He got some shots stripped and a couple blocked because he was playing against professional harassers Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess, guys trying with the greatest resolve to defend their championship.
But Duncan did in Game 7 Thursday night what we've grown accustomed to seeing him do for eight NBA seasons. He understood that his team wasn't going to win unless he grabbed hold of the game. He ignored that he missed eight straight shots into the third quarter and kept firing, the way Moses and Hakeem would have. Duncan made four of his last five shots in the third quarter. Oh, he hit his free throws, too, five of six to be exact. What started out as a rotten quarter for his Spurs, with the Pistons pushing their lead to nine at one point, ended with Duncan scoring a dozen and San Antonio riding him back into a 57-57 tie going into the fourth.
Where he was, for whatever reason, uninvolved at times late in Games 5 and 6, Duncan was assertive and even aggressive in Game 7. He demonstrated a stubbornness we'd seen plenty of times before, just not in the last couple of games when it mattered. He missed one of his pet bank shots with the Spurs leading by four, 67-63. But when Manu Ginobili drove the lane and passed to Duncan standing 18 feet from the basket, Duncan caught, jumped and shot it in to push the Spurs' lead back to six, 69-63.
On San Antonio's very next possession, after Detroit's Chauncey Billups scored to cut the deficit to 69-65, Duncan threatened to turn and shoot over McDyess until Rip Hamilton came to double-team. And the moment Hamilton committed, Duncan fired an assist pass to Ginobili, who had plenty of room for the three-point jumper that made it 72-65.
Even when he failed to make the play successfully, Duncan was actively involved. He determined where Detroit's defense went, certainly helped lure Detroit's big men into big foul trouble. And when the Spurs saw Duncan being Duncan instead of some reluctant all-star, they were transformed back into champions themselves from a bunch of guys who'd lost three of four games in the Finals and were reeling. What did they do differently to get him jump-started? "We said, 'Here Mr. Two-time Finals MVP . . . Here's the ball," teammate Bruce Bowen said. "That's all it took. That's not a major adjustment. 'Hey Tim, here.' "
Or as Tony Parker said, "When we saw Timmy playing like that it just gave us so much energy."
When Duncan became Duncan again, it was as if Ginobili had been freed to play the way he had in the first two games, the way he had against Phoenix in the conference finals and against Seattle the round before that. Ginobili became daring again, going to the basket without fear of what the Pistons might do to him. And the result in the final critical possessions was free throws one trip, a flying layup the next, 23 points and five rebounds in all and a confident recklessness that matches anything the Pistons bring.
But that's the way it had to happen. Duncan had to lead them and he did, not that it started that way. "I felt the game was going bad for me," he said, speaking of the 0-for-8 stretch. "My teammates continued to throw me the ball, continued to feed me. They were more confident in me than I was. That's so appreciated . . . they'll never understand."
Duncan said it was just a matter of sticking with what was planned, sticking with playing the way he knew how and had played for years and years. "It wasn't the greatest game," he said. "I just wanted to be assertive, stay aggressive . . . I got on a roll for a bit and my shot felt good."
And a stretch, a bit, is sometimes all a great player needs. The complementary players, the guys like Ginobili and Robert Horry (15 points) follow the star, particularly in the NBA. The numbers weren't as good as they have been, but they also don't reflect the effort, the control of the game, specifically in the third quarter when it looked like Detroit was about to pull away and Gregg Popovich had to burn a timeout to plot and settle his team. "He put his team on his shoulders and carried them," Detroit's Ben Wallace said of Duncan, "which is what the great players do."
So on a night that started with a real uncertainty, even among the Spurs faithful, about what Duncan was or wasn't doing well enough right now, the man Shaq nicknamed "The Big Fundamental" wound up walking away with his third MVP award. His decision-making when double-teamed and his willingness to keep firing were far more important than being efficient.
Duncan started the Finals as the best player in the series, and after relinquishing that distinction to Detroit's Billups for four games, Duncan re-introduced himself to his teammates, to the Pistons, and to professional basketball as a great player who could produce great results when it counts, right now, this time, again.