AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Tim Duncan is what he is, and he's not what he's not. What he's not, is the electric personality that can turn the NBA Finals from a ratings sinkhole into a water-cooler spectacle.
What he is, is the best and most important player in the Finals. Whether the San Antonio Spurs pick up in tonight's Game 4 where they left off in Games 1 and 2, or slip off track as they did in Game 3, depends wholly on what Duncan can do.
Put another way: Manu Ginobili isn't going to carry the Spurs to the championship this year, despite what the bandwagon jumpers proclaimed after the first two games. And the only way the Detroit Pistons are going to repeat is if their own two most valuable big men, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace, outplay Duncan.
All of the above, and more, is why Pistons coach Larry Brown said yesterday that he was "so tickled" at the widespread notion that these Finals lack superstars. He grouped Duncan and Ginobili together in his claim - but in practically the next breath, he explained the difference between the two.
"I don't buy looking at stat sheets [to see] whether a guy had a big game or not," Brown said. "Sometimes, stars, just by being out there, make other players around them better. That's how I judge the best players in this league."
So does everyone else involved in this series. Ginobili wasn't about to pretend he was now the Spurs' go-to guy because he had two explosive games to open the Finals. The Pistons didn't even pretend that they were now focusing their defensive attention on him, or that they did anything in particular to cool him down to seven points Tuesday night.
But Duncan - oh, it all revolved around him, during the game Tuesday and in discussions about tonight. The Spurs said they needed Duncan to bounce back from a subpar performance, and Duncan was saying it louder than anyone else.
The Pistons, meanwhile, said the challenge above all challenges was clamping down on Duncan one way or another - mainly by getting one or both Wallaces playing the way they were before the debacles of Games 1 and 2.
Ginobili? Well, yeah, he's a problem, but first things first.
"Tim Duncan can get 12 points in a game," Brown said, "and I think he can impact the whole game just by his unselfishness and the attention he draws and the way he plays."
Duncan was bothered by his showing Tuesday, but it wasn't specifically his 14 points.
"I thought I was a little lackadaisical with the ball," he said. "I got it knocked away a couple of times, telegraphed a lot of my moves, and just made bad moves. So it's about being a little more assertive on the offensive end, being a little more crisp on the offensive end.
"But at the same time, [the Pistons] also got a bunch of offensive rebounds and killed us in that respect. So I have to be a part of that and make sure that I get bodies on people and cut that down as much as possible."
He's not wrong about any of it. He went too many possessions without touching the ball and didn't do the things he usually does when he did get it. Had he, Ginobili surely would have scored more than seven points, injured leg or not. As much as the world was set to anoint him after Games 1 and 2, it was too slow to recognize that he was a brilliant sidekick to a legit, bona fide superstar.
Without Duncan, there would be no lanes for Ginobili to fearlessly drive, no open looks from the three-point arc for Bruce Bowen and Robert Horry, no paths to the glass for Nazr Mohammed. Duncan was quiet Tuesday; the rest of the Spurs were downright mute.
That's the power of a superstar.
The Pistons know it. They hit him with everything they had, and it was just enough. Rasheed Wallace buried his own offense - again - trying to hang with Duncan defensively. Ben Wallace summoned the energy and passion missing for two games and seemed to be everywhere Duncan didn't want him to be. When either Wallace sat, Antonio McDyess picked up the slack.
It drove Duncan crazy, made him do un-Duncan-like things (like pick up a technical for his reaction to an early foul on a block try on Tayshaun Prince). It also reminded anyone who needed reminding that, no matter who stole the spotlight for however long, the focal point of this series is Duncan, the two-time league MVP, two-time champion and reluctant superstar.
Reluctant, that is, only to act like one off the court. On the court, it's another story. Coach Gregg Popovich said he didn't have to say anything to Duncan about what he needs to do.
"He will pound himself. He will go over it in his head. He watched the film with us [yesterday] and he knows what he's got to do to respond," Popovich said. "And he'll do everything in his power to do that, and he usually does respond very, very well."
It's what superstars are supposed to do, whether anyone believes he is or not.