It was painful to watch Tim Duncan sit at the postgame podium following the San Antonio Spurs’ Game 7 loss to the Miami Heat. With his head rested on the palm of his hand, his eyes fixed downward, there was an appropriate dejection that appeared to overwhelm him.
Duncan is a four-time NBA champion and a three-time Finals MVP; he knew the historic gravity of the moment that just escaped him.
His last Finals MVP came in 2005 after a Game 7 victory against the Detroit Pistons, a game in which Duncan scored 25 points and had 11 rebounds. Duncan had triumphed over the weight of that one deciding game.
The ending wasn’t so sweet this time around.
Duncan finished with a similar stat line in Game 7 against the Heat, scoring 24 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. In Game 6, despite the Spurs’ collapse, Duncan scored 30 points and had 17 rebounds.
Ultimately, though, those numbers will disappear in the series ruin, the first Finals that Duncan has lost of his career.
Now, he knows the gravity of losing that game, one that could have played out differently had he not missed a point-blank hook shot and an ensuing tip attempt with 48 seconds left that would have tied the game.
The inability of the Spurs to win doesn’t change what Duncan has accomplished in his career—four NBA championships sit nicely on the resume of any all-time great.
To win a fifth title, though, and to join an even smaller list of prominent stars to do so, oh that would have been the sweet ending to a career that would have ranked even higher among the top players of all time.
He still has time, of course. The 37-year-old looked mystified at the thought of his retirement when asked about it after Game 7.
Duncan won his first Finals MVP in 1999 as a second-year player, and went on to win two more in 2003 and 2005. His fourth title came in 2007, when Tony Parker took MVP honors.
If the Spurs won either Game 6 or 7, Duncan's fifth title would have helped his case that he has been the best player of his era. It would have tied Kobe Bryant’s five titles and surpassed Shaquille O'Neal’s four.
Duncan already has two regular-season MVP awards, more than both O’Neal and Bryant, who each have one.
If Duncan earned a fifth ring, his legacy would have shifted from “the greatest power forward” to a higher honor as simply one of the game’s all-time greats.
Duncan is an underwhelming superstar only because he never stirred the pot, he never switched teams and he never provided memorable sound bites. He rarely lit up the scoreboard in incomprehensible ways nor did he fill a highlight reel.
His trademark of kissing tough bank shots from the perimeter isn’t as marketable as a powerful dunk or swift handles.
There’s no need to apologize that “The Big Fundamental” isn’t provocative enough to carry a legacy without the stats and championship trophies to support it. You can tip your cap to Duncan; he’s still one of the greatest players of all time despite failing to earn a fifth title.
His legacy isn’t tarnished; it just doesn’t expand to the peak level.