Duncan shows true MVP form in decisive night

SAN ANTONIO -- Winning a Game 7 in the NBA Finals against Larry Brown's unsinkable Detroit Pistons is not the toughest thing these San Antonio Spurs have tried to do.

This is the team, after all, that domesticated Eva Longoria.

Then again ...


Maybe Eva was easier.

Someone said going in that this would be the Spurs' hardest-ever Finals ... and it wound up being harder than that. To win Title No. 3 of the Duncan Era -- to finally KO the NBA's undisputed resiliency champs -- San Antonio needed more than a second-half resurrection from nine points down.

More than copious doses of a rejuvenated Tim Duncan.

San Antonio had to win this series three times.

That allegedly insurmountable 2-0 lead wasn't nearly enough. The emotional dagger of a Game 5 steal on Detroit's floor, delivered by a textbook Robert Horry special, didn't do it either.

The Spurs had to rally for an 81-74 triumph in a Game 7 that even had their fulcrum, Duncan, admitting he was as nervous as he's ever been. Which means San Antonio needed the game's most reliable inside force -- dubbed "the ultimate winner" by vanquished Suns coach Mike D'Antoni in the West finals -- to overcome his own fragility on top of everything else.

"They were more confident in me than I was," Duncan said of his teammates.

Yet it turns out that the unwavering belief was plenty justified. This wasn't a slam-dunk of the naysayers -- like that 37-point, 16-board assault Duncan hung on the Lakers in a Game 6 two years ago to halt L.A.'s three-peat -- but No. 21 was better than his numbers on this night. His between-games body language didn't look too inspiring, and a stretch of nearly 14 minutes without a point was rather alarming, but the smooth look of his free-throw stroke (when we saw it, at last, in the third quarter) should tell you where his head was for this one.

Right on.

Don't be deceived by the 27 shots Duncan needed to get his 25 points. While it took him more than two quarters and some serious Detroit foul trouble to get going, don't forget that Duncan got no help for ages. The Pistons' points were coming much easier than the hosts' for a half. The Spurs looked afraid to shoot from the perimeter and literally got nothing on the run. Detroit controlled the tempo so completely that San Antonio went to intermission with zero fast-break points.

After coach Gregg Popovich said beforehand that a slow pace would be "instant death."

Death was averted in the third quarter, but not instantly. Rasheed Wallace picked up his fourth foul just 51 seconds into the half, and yet the stubborn Pistons somehow stretched their lead to 48-39, looking like the unsinkables they've been for so long. Looking like they were destined to become the first team in Finals history to win Game 6 and Game 7 on the road.

Then Duncan started carving. A big three-point play started it all. He even mixed in four straight makes at the line. He finally kissed home one of his trademark bankers from the wing, the go-to move that has been AWOL for days.

Duncan got it going to the degree that you couldn't simply say he was scoring because 'Sheed was sitting. For in the fourth quarter, with 'Sheed back in the fray, Duncan had Brown so concerned that the Pistons coach started calling for double-teams. It turned out to be the most steady stream of double-teams Duncan saw in the series.

Which opened up the outside for the game-breaking triples that came from Horry, Bruce Bowen and Manu Ginobili in the final period. Ginobili looked particularly liberated by the extra attention Duncan was drawing, finally finding an opening or two to collect 11 of his 23 points, helping the Spurs gradually pull away.

The difference?

"You could tell when he caught the ball how much more physical he was," Popovich said.

The difference?

"Just Timmy," said guard Tony Parker, whose latest miserable outing in a series of struggles was offset by Duncan's bail-out.

"You follow your leader."

For most of these Finals, of course, it was Bash The Leader. Duncan had been criticized like never before after getting repeatedly stripped and out-muscled over the past four games. The negativity actually got loudest after the one game in there that San Antonio won, because it took Horry scoring 21 of the Spurs' final 35 points in Game 5 to wipe out Duncan's six straight missed free throws in crunch time.

The criticism was warranted, too, until folks started saying Duncan's legacy was at stake.


It never was, no matter how ugly this ending could have been.

Reason being: Duncan isn't even 30 yet. It's not like Duncan is at the end of his career, like Brown.

Another reason: He's on a team with a glorious future, flanked by an ever-improving sidekick (Manu Ginobili) and the unrivaled coach-GM tandem of Popovich and R.C. Buford.

Any dynasty talk is obviously premature, given how easily San Antonio could have lost this thing to a team with basically a two-man bench, but the future holds abundant promise. This was hardly his last chance to win a ring.

Besides ...

You're allowed to have one bad Finals, last we checked. Magic Johnson, if memory serves, had a nightmare '84 Finals. Dribbled out the clock more than once, I believe.

With a few more titles after that, Magic's legacy was just fine.

Duncan insisted afterward that he "didn't listen to anything that was said" by the pundits and analysts.

That he knew "what I wanted to do for myself and for my teammates."

Even so, Bowen felt compelled to throw some defense Duncan's way after his effective switch from Richard Hamilton to Chauncey Billups.

"Everybody is entitled to their own opinion," Bowen said, "but we understood what we had in him."

Said Ginobili: "I doubt that he knew that somebody was criticizing him, because he's not that kind of guy [who's] going to be worried about what people say. But he always feels so responsible. He's so hard on himself every time he doesn't play that [well], I knew that sooner or later he was going to show up."

Most of all, they knew how hard this would be. Getting to four wins. Getting Game 7, especially.

The visitors didn't join the select club of back-to-back champions, true, and they didn't get Brown a farewell ring in what had to be his last game as Detroit's coach.

Yet the Pistons did their own legacy no harm. They've complained about a lack of respect more than the late, great Rodney Dangerfield ever did, but that shouldn't be a problem any more. After all their comebacks this season and in these Finals, from The Malice of Auburn Hills to how close they came to making history, no one could question Brown when he said, "I'm just as proud of my team as I was June 16th last year."

How tough was it to finish off the guys who broke up Shaq and Kobe?

"I don't know how the hell we did it," Popovich announced to the sellout crowd as the trophy was passed around.

"But I'm thrilled."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.