- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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SAN ANTONIO -- It might be, as the locals here hope, just a Game 1 hex. Or it might be time for Tim Duncan to start smooching them in off the glass, like he does on those elbow jumpers, more smoothly than anyone else.
Either way, San Antonio and its Spurs have to be wondering about Duncan and his free throw woes -- and just how serious they are.
Duncan missed five crucial free throws in the opener of the Phoenix series. He missed six more in a narrow Game 1 victory over the Lakers in the conference semifinals on Monday. Worse yet, Duncan didn't look confident at all at the line, which is supposed to be Shaquille O'Neal's problem.
Swarms of Suns defenders -- two or three at a time -- didn't really rattle Duncan, who had never seen such devotion from an opponent to get the ball out of his hands. You also suspect that Duncan will inevitably force the Lakers to mix their coverages, because L.A. went with largely single-coverage in Game 1, and with Shaq only occasionally the Duncan defender. Over an extended stretch, it's difficult to see Robert Horry containing the two-time reigning MVP without help.
The concern, which the Spurs don't even deny, is what happens when Duncan is all alone. For all the hubbub about San Antonio's free-throw advantage in Game 1 of the Lakers-Spurs series (San Antonio shot 35 free throws, compared to just 12 for the Lakers) the No. 1 seeds didn't exactly take advantage. They missed 14 as a team, including those six from Duncan.
He short-armed a couple. He rushed a couple more. Duncan, in general, made one question whether the shame and consequence of those misses from the first game of the Phoenix series (Duncan was 3-for-8 that night in a 96-95 overtime loss) are still rattling around in his head.
"I don't think we're burning it up at the line," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich conceded. "It's often a weakness for us."
For a season, back in 2000-01, it was a Shaq-sized hole in Duncan's game. The man with the sweetest bank shot in the sport shot 61.8 percent from the line.
His rise to MVP status last season was at least partially predicated on the massive improvement Duncan made at the stripe. In '01-02, he shot 79.9 percent from the line, a success rate commensurate with his sweet touch from the field.
Duncan slipped to 71 percent from the line this season, which helped drag the Spurs to 26th in the league this season, at 72.5 percent as a team. That put San Antonio one spot below Shaq's Lakers, and it hasn't gotten any better in the playoffs.
The Spurs, through seven games in the postseason, have four key rotation players shooting worse than Duncan's 66.7 percent: Manu Ginobili (.650), Tony Parker (.640), David Robinson (.636) and Bruce Bowen (.333). Bowen was the league's top 3-point shooter during the regular season, but he's worse from the line.
Duncan, of course, stands out the most because he goes to the line the most. And because he's Duncan, the Spurs need a lot more.
Monday's game was illustrative. In the fourth quarter, perhaps undone by his struggles from the line, Duncan missed his first four shots from the field and threw the ball away twice. He recovered, however, and hit five of six free throws in the final 4:26 to help seal a victory.
Yet the reality remains that Ginobili and Robinson were the real Game 1 saviors for the home team.
In Game 2, expect O'Neal to attack the Spurs like a bulldozer in Game 2. Shaq was as active defensively in Game 1 as he's been all season, altering shots inside on top of his 21 boards. If he can maintain that level of activity -- and see more of the ball in the fourth quarter -- the Spurs will need a big-time response. After Kobe Bryant's 38 shots in the opener, and after O'Neal fouled out with more than three minutes to play, count on Shaq demanding the ball and getting it.
It will certainly help if Robinson can duplicate the 14-point, 11-rebound, solid-defense package he provided in addition to splitting the Shaq duties on defense. But Duncan needs to be better everywhere, with the free-throw line serving as a fine starting point.
Tim Duncan has to make his free throws, at least better than 67 percent, for the Spurs to beat L.A.