The outside world never seems to affect Tim Duncan as much it does you and me. He doesn't furrow his brow or snarl. His whole bearing suggests a sort of aloof, unrelatable mastery—of his talents, of his emotions, of his image, of everything around him. Which is why it was so hard to watch him last night in the moments after he fell just short of his fifth NBA title.
Sitting behind a podium in his characteristic oversized collared shirt and jeans, Duncan, now 37, cradled his head in his enormous hands, his eyes downcast as he answered to the assembled media.
"To be in a Game 7 or to be in a Game 6, up one and two chances to win an NBA championship and not do it—that's tough to swallow," he said.
Minutes earlier, Duncan had had a chance to tie the game. He'd wheeled past Shane Battier and missed a short push shot off the back of the rim—"a shot Tim Duncan usually makes eight out of 10 times," according to Battier.
"Probably Game 7 is always going to haunt me," Duncan went on, and he began listing the reasons, as though confessing his sins: "Missing a layup to tie the game. Making a bad decision down the stretch. Just unable to stop Dwyane and LeBron."
Even the reporters seemed to handle him with extra care, as though stunned to see a player as implacable as Duncan so conspicuously mourning his only finals loss in five tries.
Had the Spurs won, Duncan almost certainly would have collected his fourth finals MVP. The numbers don't leap off the page, though 19 points and 12 rebounds per game is an amazing stat line for a player of Duncan's age. Duncan wasn't the high scorer in any of the Spurs' three wins. In fact, someone else was the hero of each win: Danny Green erupting and razing the Heat defense to rubble, Manu Ginobili momentarily regaining his ability to manipulate space-time, Tony Parker drilling step-back jumpers. But no Spur, save perhaps Kawhi Leonard, was as consistent as Duncan.
When his team needed to pick up the pace of play so as to attack before Miami's defense could set up, Duncan ran the floor like a young man. When James and Wade pouted after no-calls, Duncan ran his old ass off to get up court; the object wasn't really for him to score, but to force the Heat to pay attention to him so his teammates would face less resistance.
Duncan blocks shots without jumping. He isn't especially graceful anymore, not even in the post. He relies on canted leaners and what's become an almost tactical awkwardness to catch the defense off guard. He does all his work on the downbeats of a sequence, after he's faked a guy into the rafters. The flashiest thing he does is throw really awesome outlet passes.
But as the series wore on, and one by one his teammates began to falter and fail, Duncan's often subtle brilliance became plain. Parker was stymied by injury and could not elude James. Ginobili started throwing the ball all over the arena. Danny Green and Gary Neal, having smacked into their glass ceilings, spent Games 6 and 7 plummeting to earth.
At the end—as at the beginning of the Spurs' 14-year run—what was left was Duncan on the low block. He averaged 27 points and 14.5 rebounds in the last two games. He twisted his way past Chris Bosh and manhandled Chris Anderson; he was a diminished player who'd adapted, and there was something poignant in all of it that even a casual fan outside of Texas could see. Maybe Duncan's finals failure, the one in which he pushed LeBron James to even higher levels of magnificence, will make people better appreciate the ones he did win.
After he missed that fateful layup over Battier, Duncan finally cracked. As the Heat moved the ball up court and called timeout, Duncan, enraged, slapped the floor with both hands. It was as demonstrative as Duncan has ever been on the court.
"That's just frustration," Duncan explained, in his way. Dreams frustrated; hopes dashed. Who can't relate to that?
Beckley Mason writes about basketball for HoopSpeak, The New York Times, and other places. You can follow him on twitter @BeckleyMason.