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Modest Duncan carrying Spurs to glory 

Mark Woods 

Tim Duncan is probably the best basketball player you never heard of.  He's also arguably the finest player in the National Basketball Association. Which in reality means that no-one on the planet can live with him right now. Duncan is on a level of his own and the powerful 7-0 wonder is taking his San Antonio Spurs team along for the journey.  

Portland Trailblazers were the latest team to feel his back hand of his talent after the Oregon side were forced to play off with the Texans, the Spurs with hopes of securing their first NBA Finals appearance. The Blazers have exceeded their expectations this season en route to lifting the Pacific Division title, their playcaller Mike Dunleavy rewarded with the Coach of Year prize. But in the best of seven Western Conference Final series between the pair, 23 year old Duncan has been the catalyst which has enabled the Texans to spike the Oregonian's hopes of a title. 

Perhaps itís his island mentality which allows Duncan to set himself apart from his peers. Born and raised on the tiny Virgin Island of St. Croix, his arrival in San Antonio came via a four year student passage at Wake Forest University. His graduation was followed by selection by the Spurs with the premier pick of the 1997 Draft, a real surprise despite his clear pedigree. For the ball club already had a stellar big man in the shape of David Robinson, himself a former NBA Most Valuable Player and at first glance possessing a game virtually identical to that of the aspiring rookie. 

Two seasons on, the tacticians and critics have been silenced. Duncan and Robinson have meshed their games to such a degree that opponents find them almost impossible to defend against. The Twin Towers each have their own distinct strengths: Duncan possessing a sweet outside shot, Robinson a defensive enforcer. And somehow their tandem wheels in harmony rather than colliding - personal statistics less vital than the success of the team. 

"At some point, individual accomplishments are important," Duncan modestly professed. "I think you can use them as goals, you can use them as you try to achieve a certain level. I think they are definitely, at some point, a big part of what we do. But no doubt about it, the wins are the most important." 

Once upon a time, the Spurs were regarded as having a heart of glass. Perennially successful during the regular season, come play off time the Texans simply fell apart. Robinson himself was subjected to jibes of being too soft, lacking the mettle necessary in a champion. However, Duncanís normally ice cool demeanour belies a fiercely competitive streak and it is a positive force which has been liberally instilled into the Spursí Class of 99. 

If proof were needed,  the second leg against the Blazers provided a dossier full. Trailing by  two points with less than ten seconds remaining before 35,000 home fans in the Alomodrome, Spurs forward Sean Elliot drained an unbelievable three point late shot hit more in hope than expectation. Its success took the hosts half way towards a Finals match up with either Indiana Pacers or the surprising New York Knicks. The Spurs of old would have surely folded under such last gasp pressure. And then even when Duncan was held to a mere four points in  Game 3, his team still completed a 85-63 rout of their opponents. 

"Right now, I think they're better without me," Duncan joked afterward. "It was awesome. It  was incredible what they did out there. It was just a lot of fun to watch."  Given that the Spurs won more games away from home than any other side in this shortened season, there was little prospect of an escape route for Portland and so it proved as the Spurs swept the series with a 4-0 whitewash.  

The fact that he has not yet achieved global fame speaks volumes for his own sense of humility and a willingness to put shooting practice before the mighty commercial dollar. No movie deals, no rap records, Duncan is a basketball player pure and simple. Thereís no showboating, no baiting of opponents. The complete professional. 

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is justifiably proud of his go-to guy . "He's not impressed with himself when he does something that's astounding. He's not depressed when he makes a mistake. He just keeps competing. He just keeps playing. Tim Duncan just wants to get better. He's not impressed with the hype." 

Nonetheless when the 1999 Most Valuable Player recipient was revealed, Duncanís name was not added to this most distinguished of lists. With votes cast six weeks previois, the victor for the second time was Utah Jazz star Karl Malone, despite his teamís early departure from the play-off fray. Re-open the ballot box and there would be surely only one winner - San Antonioís Number 21. Duncan might even get excited about that. If not, itís nothing personal, you understand. Heíll just be taking care of business.

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