Tim Duncan has been notoriously bland to media for most of his 17-year career, choosing to bury his personality with thoughtful but intentionally boring quotes that help him avoid unwanted attention. Duncan rarely lets down his guard.
But that’s what happened moments after the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder last Saturday to earn a sixth trip to the NBA Finals. Asked his thoughts about a rematch with the Miami Heat, Duncan leaned into a TNT microphone and said: “It’s unbelievable to regain that focus after that devastating loss that we had last year. But we’re back here. We’re excited about it. We’ve got four more to win. We’ll do it this time.”
Duncan then added: “We’re happy it’s the Heat again. We’ve got that bad taste in our mouths still.”
The Spurs were fewer than 10 seconds away from wrapping up the 2013 series in six games. The league had begun surrounding the court with yellow tape to make preparations for a celebration — until Chris Bosh rebounded a LeBron James miss and found Ray Allen in the corner for a three-pointer to force overtime.
Miami won Game 6 and claimed the series in seven games. Duncan missed a late layup over Shane Battier in the final minute of Game 7 and said afterward that the series — and his late-game point-blank miss — would haunt him for some time.
San Antonio has made no secret of its motivation this season, and Duncan’s postgame comments Saturday underscored what’s driving the Spurs, who have won four titles yet are going to back-to-back Finals for the first time in franchise history.
“Our guys, they actually grew from the loss last year. They showed an unbelievable amount of fortitude,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said after the decisive win Saturday. “If I can compliment my own team humbly, to have that tough loss — especially the Game 6 — and not have a pity party, and come back this year and get back to the same position. That’s fortitude.”
The previous four times San Antonio was unable to return to the Finals, it probably had the fortitude but either lacked the fortune or talent to win the West.
The Spurs were unlucky when Duncan tore the meniscus in his left knee late in the regular season in 2000, never recovered from Derek Fisher’s shot with 0.4 seconds left in Game 5 of the conference semifinals in 2004, were undone by a determined Dirk Nowitzki in 2006 and couldn’t overcome the will of Kobe Bryant, emboldened by an MVP trophy and the addition of Pau Gasol, in 2008.
The next four years, the Spurs suffered a first-round loss to Dallas, a second-round loss to Phoenix, a first-round loss to eighth-seeded Memphis and a conference finals loss to Oklahoma City that made it seem that championship boat rides along the River Walk were well in the past. At least, to those who don’t have Duncan on their side.
“I truly believe every season that we had a shot at winning the championship. That’s the great thing of playing for a franchise like this with the teammates I’m playing with,” guard Manu Ginobili said. “But going to the Finals twice in a row is very hard to accomplish, especially because you guys can see the amount of talent we are facing every time.”
The close call after a six-year Finals drought created a team that wouldn’t be denied on its quest back; San Antonio finished with the league’s best record in the regular season and went 12-5 in the playoffs, knocking off Dallas, Portland and Oklahoma City.
“We just had a weird year this year,” Duncan, 38, said. “We were pressing hard early on and grinding on each other, just because of what happened last year. We were able to settle ourselves down. I’m proud of the team for just being ready, just not letting that weigh on us and using it as an excuse for anything. We’re back here now, and we want to get it done this time.”
This is the first time San Antonio has faced the same opponent in the Finals after previously defeating New York, New Jersey, Detroit and a Cleveland team that featured a 22-year-old James.
Duncan embraced James after the Spurs completed a sweep in 2007 and got caught up in the euphoria of the win as he joked, “This is going to be your league in a little while but I appreciate you giving us this year.”
James got redemption last year and realizes that the Spurs are back for the same against Miami.
“They don’t like us. They don’t,” James told reporters in Miami this week. “I can sense it from Timmy’s comments over the last couple of days. They want us, so they got us.”
Note: Spurs all-star point guard Tony Parker is expected to play in Game 1 on Thursday despite missing the entire second half of the close-out victory in Oklahoma City with a sprained left ankle.
Parker also played down Duncan’s comments immediately afterward.
“Knowing Timmy that’s not trash talking. I don’t think he meant it like that. Obviously, we’re very motivated and we want to try to get it done,” Parker said Tuesday. “At the same time we know we’re playing a very good team that went to the Finals four times in a row and won the last two so we know what we’re going against. It’s a great challenge and we should only focus on that now.”