Almost three months ago, the basketball world said good-bye to a legend. A self-described “asshole,” a polarizing personality for fans, players, and coaches alike, a man whose desire to be great burned so passionately that he abrasively demanded the same out of his teammates.
Now, we’re saying good-bye again to another legend. This one, as talented and accomplished as the first, went about his business in the opposite way. Tim Duncan left the NBA so quietly, so nonchalantly, that he’ll never receive the tour of adulation that Kobe Bryant received. But to quote the Mamba himself, Duncan was always a different animal but the same beast.
We’ve heard and will continue to hear stories from players about how nice Tim Duncan was on the court. About the advice he gave to them even in the heat of competition, or about how he refused to engage in the petty mind games of talking smack, fully content to go out and just play the game to the fullest of his abilities.
Those stories paint an accurate picture of his personality, but they don’t do his legacy full justice. Yes, Duncan was an icon of stability. Yes, he was kindhearted on the court. Yes, he inspired greatness not out of anger or aggression, but by example and character.
He was also, unequivocally, a dominating factor on the court with only one care in the world: winning. Kobe said it best, Duncan was “more cutthroat than people give him credit for.” The Tim Duncan I know as a Lakers fan isn’t the one who gave Etan Thomas in-game post move advice or the guy who offered Brent Barry a hundred bucks to kiss David Stern during the Larry O’Brien Trophy presentation ceremony. The Tim Duncan I know went toe-to-toe with both Shaq and Dwight Howard, sweeping Kobe Bryant and the Lakers out of the playoffs fourteen years apart.
In that vein, let’s take a look at some of Tim Duncan’s most memorable playoff performances against the Los Angeles Lakers:
1999 Western Conference Semifinals, Game 3
The Lakers roster had undergone some serious tinkering since trading for Kobe Bryant in the 1996 draft. They drafted Fisher and traded for Big Shot Rob Horry during that season. But it was the Eddie Jones trade to Charlotte in 1999 that set the stage for the Kobe we all know now to ascend to second-in-command under perennial MVP candidate Shaquille O’Neal.
Unfortunately, the coronation ceremony would have to wait. After the first two games ended in close losses for Los Angeles, the Western Conference Semis series headed back to the coast, where the Lakers would have a chance to take advantage of home court and avenge their earlier losses.
But going up against Duncan, it was a slim chance at best. With LA on the ropes, Tim Duncan smelled defeat and turned in a MONSTER performance with a 37 and 14 double-double. His five offensive rebounds were more than every Laker not named Shaq combined. He was almost literally unstoppable in the post; Horry fouled out trying to help contain him, while Glen Rice and Rick Fox fared little better. Duncan went to the foul line 23 times that game, for 19 points, and basically ended the series that night.
As if that wasn’t enough, he came back the next game with the same intensity, and put up another 30+ point double-double, foreshadowing the Finals MVP he would receive weeks later. The Great Western Forum never hosted another Laker game, and Duncan made sure LA’s last memory of the Forum was a sour goodbye.
2001 Western Conference Finals, Game 2
Arguably the greatest playoff run ever witnessed, the Lakers’ dismantling of the Western Conference in the 2001 Playoffs made their eventual championship seem like a guarantee. Save for one crossed-up and stepped-over Tyronn Lue, most of the highlights from Laker games during that stretch came from players donning the purple and gold.
The Western Conference Finals were no exception. The Lakers swept through the Spurs like everyone else, getting a little revenge for the 1999 playoffs. But hidden behind the 0-4 record against Los Angeles lies a Tim Duncan performance for the ages. Forty points on an efficient 15 of 26 from the field. Complete with a three-pointer just for good measure. Duncan pulled down 15 rebounds and sent back four Laker shots.
The Spurs still came away with the loss, but Duncan kept them close in the only real contest of the series. He made 15 field goals in game two. The San Antonio player with the most baskets after him? Antonio Daniels. Antonio Daniels only hit five shots. Moving on.
2004 Western Conference Semifinals Game 5
My memory of this game still gives me chills to this day. This contest was a defensive battle, between the Lakers forcing Duncan to turn the ball over seven times to the Spurs getting both Shaq and Karl Malone in serious foul trouble. For us Laker fans, there’s only one defining memory in this game: .4.
Derek Fisher rising up over Manu Ginobili to achieve what no one thought was possible was probably the dagger that ended the series; the Lakers would cruise to a 12-point series-clinching win in Game 6. That iconic moment makes it easy to forget what had just happened on the previous possession. The Spurs had just run a dribble handoff to get Ginobili the ball slashing into the lane, but the Lakers played it perfectly, leaving Duncan to pull off an incredible 20-foot jumper off the dribble to give the Spurs the lead with only .4 seconds remaining.
That was, at the time, the most important shot of Duncan’s career. For those brief moments before Derek Fisher silenced the crowd, Duncan breathed life back into the Spurs, who were leaning against the ropes facing a Lakers team stacked with hall of famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton in addition to Kobe and Shaq. That 21 and 21 double-double would have been one of the finest playoff performances of his career. Thankfully for the Lakers, Fisher overshadowed it all.
2008 Western Conference Finals: Game 1
This game was characterized much more by the Lakers furious comeback in the second-half than by Duncan’s performance, but if Kobe Bryant hadn’t taken over the game in the last two quarters, the ’08 WCF could have gone much differently. Duncan was the Spurs’ only bright spot in the fourth quarter, scoring 8 of the team’s 14 points, as the Lakers rode the Spurs cold streak to come back from a 20 point hole to secure the win.
It was more of the same from Duncan. Another 30 point game. Another double-double with 18 rebounds. Another performance as San Antonio’s defensive anchor up with four blocks against the Lakers new-look front court led by Pau Gasol. Even though the Lakers came up with the win, the first half played like a Tim Duncan mixtape: pure domination.
2013, First Round, Western Conference Playoffs
I like to pretend this season doesn’t exist. But the Internet won’t let me. As Pau Gasol grew more disenchanted with the organization, as Dwight Howard clashed with Mike D’Antoni, and as we watched a living legend give the last competitive basketball he had in his body, we knowingly watched the Kobe Bryant era come to a screeching halt.
The 2012-2013 season has given me more anxiety than I would like to admit. Watching Kobe drag the Lakers into the playoffs was both exhilarating and painful. But nothing was more painful than watching Dwight Howard effectively quit on Los Angeles in game four, eschewing his chance to prove his worth to the fans and instead falling prey to his frustrations and fouling out of the game.
Game four of that series was the start of the Lakers’ decline, one that we’re only now starting to reverse. And as painful as that series was, we can all find some humor in it. I only recently got over my distaste for Dwight Howard, but my favorite Tim Duncan memory will always be Timmy sitting on the scorer’s table, mockingly smiling at Howard while Dwight leaves the court in a Laker jersey for the last time.
Thanks for the memories Tim.