SAN ANTONIO - Tim Duncan's reputation was on the line. Go figure: He's the best power forward of his time, maybe the best who ever played, a two-time Most Valuable Player and twice the NBA Finals MVP, and if he didn't lead the Spurs to a win in last night's Game 7 against the Detroit Pistons, he would never live it down.
That's life in the big leagues, the price you pay for all that hardware. It doesn't get easier, and for the previous four games of the NBA Finals, Duncan had looked as if living up to the reputation he'd earned was harder than teaching nuclear physics.
If you know anything about this league, it's that your name is made in the playoffs, in the Finals, in Game 7s. Said his coach, Gregg Popovich, before last night's finale: "I think great players' legacies all are built around that - how many championships they have, whether they were the MVP of the deal, how did they play in the important games. I think that's true. That's fair."
Yet had he turned in one more game like the last four, his picture would have forever been entered in the dictionary next to the word "soft."
One more game? How about 1 1/2 more quarters? Midway through the third quarter of the defining game (like it or not) of his brilliant career, the biggest and best player in the Finals was looking Lilliputian, in front of a home crowd graduating slowly from nervous to terrified at what was unfolding.
The Spurs, who led this series 2-0 after consecutive routs of the defending champion Pistons, were trailing 48-39 after not having scored a basket in the first 4:37 of the second half. They had been outscored 9-1. Duncan had not scored since four minutes into the second quarter. He had finished the half with all of eight points. He was shrinking, missing from in close, missing follow shots, taking and missing jumpers he had no business taking.
And then it all changed. Eighteen ferocious minutes, starting with the last 7 1/2 minutes of that third quarter, when he decided, at long last, to take the game over. Twelve points in the quarter, under and through and around and over every defender the Pistons threw at him, and they threw them all at him. That's what the Pistons do best; it's how they got back into this series and got this series to a seventh game, and convinced so many people, including many tiptoeing around San Antonio yesterday, that they were going to repeat by pure force.
Duncan told everybody, including Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace and Antonio McDyess and whoever else threw himself into his path, that if you want to see force, check this out. He hit jump shots, bank shots, hooks, drives - and, of all things, free throws, his Kryptonite throughout the Spurs' fall from that 2-0 lead.
His three-point play closed that nine-point third-quarter gap to one, then tied it at 53 with 2:54 left in the quarter with a bank shot from the left side, then gave the Spurs the lead in the final minute of the quarter - after blocking Ben Wallace at the rim with the shot clock running down, and before getting a hand on a Chauncey Billups shot.
Then came the fourth quarter, and Duncan kicked it up another notch. Or, kicked it out. Because of the points he was piling up, the Pistons started collapsing on him even more, and he found the open shooters. Bruce Bowen in the right corner with 6:11 to go to pad the lead to six. Manu Ginobili from the right wing with 2:57 left to get it to seven. In between, a 20-footer, the perimeter shot that had seemed such a concession by him when things were going badly for him and his team.
Duncan finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. It was an MVP performance, a championship performance. And a shut-up performance. Against a team built on toughness, on defense, on gritty overachievers beating up and cutting down superstars.
Too bad for the Pistons, because a second straight title would have given them a place in history as a champion cut from a different mold. They were trying to be the first team ever to win the Finals by winning games 6 and 7 on the road, to be the fourth ever to rally from an 0-2 hole, to be the first since the 1978 Bullets to win Game 7 on the road, to win an 11th straight game when they had a chance to clinch a playoff series, the first to win two Game 7s on the road in one postseason.
The Spurs were trying to avoid humiliation, and a reputation as one of the biggest chokers of this day or any other, authors of a gag job for the ages. And the first name mentioned would have been Tim Duncan.
Not anymore. He's now on a much more prestigious list now: three-time champion, three-time Finals MVP. The "soft" guy earned this last one the hard way.