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Jackie MacMullan
May 04, 1998
Spur of the Moment
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May 04, 1998

The Nba

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Spur of the Moment

I Guess I underestimated Tim Duncan."

Suns coach Danny Ainge ruffled his hair last Thursday night as he uttered that painful admission. Minutes earlier Duncan, the Spurs' 7-foot rookie, had dismantled Phoenix on its own floor in Game 1 of the teams' first-round playoff series by scoring 32 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a 102-96 San Antonio win. Facing single coverage, Duncan tortured the Suns' forwards in the final quarter with twisting bank shots, deadly pull-up jumpers and dazzling ball handling that included a between-the-legs move. "He looked like a point guard out there," said Phoenix forward Antonio McDyess afterward.

In the fourth quarter Duncan shot 7 of 9 from the field and scored 12 straight points for the Spurs. Hot Rod Williams, who had the misfortune of attempting to guard him, had seen only one other rookie take over a game like that. "It was like something Jordan would do" Williams said.

Yet, in the locker room after his finest hour, Duncan looked as though he had just watched paint dry. "I was only taking what they gave me," he deadpanned.

Other Spurs attempted to coax a smile out of Duncan. They told him they were going to fill his shoes with cement to ensure that his feet stayed on the ground. "But Tim is kind of hard to tease," said guard Vinny Del Negro. "He's so level. A flat line."

Perhaps that's why, when the Suns swarmed Duncan in the post with two pesky bodies in Game 2, he never looked flustered, even though he struggled to kick the ball out and committed six turnovers. Duncan finished with 16 points and 10 boards, but Phoenix won 108-101. He reacted to this colossal letdown as though he had just finished sorting out the socks in his drawer. "We made mistakes, and we'll do better next time," the 22-year-old Duncan said.

But it isn't that simple for San Antonio. The heat was on the Spurs as they headed into Game 3 on Monday night (a 100-88 San Antonio victory), because unlike Phoenix, which wants to advance, San Antonio must, or face more questions about its toughness. "This idea of us being soft is totally false," says coach and general manager Gregg Popovich. "These players aren't like ones in the past. They bang every night."

Nothing catastrophic is planned if the Spurs lose. Popovich will continue to pull double duty next season. Because the Spurs are over the salary cap, no blockbuster free-agent signings are on the horizon. David Robinson will continue to be the team's leader—at least until the kid has been around a little longer. There's no doubt, though, that the Spurs' future lies squarely with Duncan, who summed up the series' importance like a man waiting for water to boil. "I know how it works," he said. "You're a hero one day and blamed for everything the next. I've never gotten too high or too low. It only messes you up."

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