- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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SAN ANTONIO -- Sayeth Don Nelson: "There's never been a guy as well-rounded that I can remember."
Sayeth Byron Scott: "He is without a doubt, right now, the best player in the NBA."
Sayeth ESPN.com: "The New Shaq."
All of the above, of course, were gushing references to Tim Duncan, all of them made before these NBA Finals began, all of them intended to convey the notion that Duncan's arrival on the Finals stage is only a touch less ominous than the hulking presence of Shaquille O'Neal.
Duncan's Game 1 detonation validated all of the references, too, leading into a Friday night when the gushing finally and suddenly stopped.
This was the night that Duncan took the Shaq parallels too far, and reminded the world just how powerful the mind can be. He missed free throws in the pre-game warmup, looked annoyed with himself even before the evening had started, then missed seven free throws in Game 2. The lowlight: Duncan missed three biggies in the fourth quarter, when only three more makes might have prevented an 87-85 defeat and given the San Antonio Spurs an unblowable Finals lead over the New Jersey Nets.
"He says he thinks he's responsible for this (loss)," David Robinson shared, passing along Duncan's Blame Me speech to his teammates.
He's probably right.
Which means that Robinson and especially Spurs coach Gregg Popovich have an important job as the Finals head east, with the plucky Nets having pulled even.
Their job is to shield Duncan as much as they can from the criticism, advice and hoopla his free-throw woes will generate now, because only Duncan can fix this, with ignoring the chatter ranking as Step 1.
He will eventually solve the defense of Dikembe Mutombo and Jason Collins, even though Duncan didn't deal with them especially smoothly in this one. Yet no one knows just how Duncan will look at the line from here, since only he can clear his head and start rattling them in again.
Let's face it: New Jersey only won by a bucket, and probably would have lost had Stephen Jackson's 3-pointer at the buzzer fallen, with Duncan playing about as poorly as he can. All of which suggests that San Antonio remains the heavy series favorite and that the Nets' upset hopes might rest not on their defensive adjustments, but on how long Friday's failings stay with Duncan.
"The line is totally a mental thing," Robinson said. "Tim is a great shooter. We all know that. He's a great jump shooter. But free throws is just a mental thing."
The playoffs have confirmed it for Duncan, who had otherwise been a beacon of efficiency and excellence in the Spurs' earlier series triumphs over Phoenix, Dallas and that KO of the thrice-defending champions from L.A. Swarm him and he picks you apart. Single-cover Duncan and, this Game 2 aside, he rampages inside.
The free throws, though, continue to be a mystery. Duncan, remember, is the guy who has the sweetest bank shot of any big man in memory. He was never Shaq at the stripe, heaving free throws rimward out of a crooked palm, a long shot to make more than half of them.
Yet there he was, going 0-for-4 in Friday's first half, none of them looking too clean. Then, in an absolute nightmare sequence at the finish, Duncan:
Missed both free throws with a chance to cut the Nets' lead to three with 3:39 to play.
Strayed out of bounds with the ball still in his hand, thinking a foul call was coming.
Fumbled the ball out of bounds under the hoop.
Lost a jump ball to Kenyon Martin, who's at least three inches shorter.
Missed another free throw, with the Spurs trailing by three (82-79) with 24.6 ticks left, before hitting the second.
That's as close as San Antonio got to the 2-0 series lead that would have certainly ended these Finals, since no home team has won the middle three games since the league switched to the 2-3-2 format in 1985. Instead, the Spurs wound up dropping one of the first two games at home for the third time in four playoff rounds. Their only 2-0 lead so far, ironically, came against the Lakers.
"When it came down to it, I missed seven free throws," Duncan said. "I make a couple of those, it's a whole different ballgame."
That's as deep as Duncan let us into his psyche on the subject, but the numbers illustrate what an issue it has become for him. In the Spurs' seven playoff defeats, Duncan is shooting just 59 percent from the line: 49-for-83. In the Spurs' last three playoff defeats, make it 48.8 percent from the line: 20-for-41. He hardly resembles the guy who shot 79.9 percent from the line in 2001-02, his first MVP season. Or even this season's reading of 71 percent. In 20 playoff games overall, Duncan is shooting 65.8 percent at the stripe.
There was plenty wrong with the Spurs here, starting with their general approach. After what Duncan did to the Nets in Game 1 -- 32 points on a mere 17 shots, to go with 20 boards and seven blocks and six assists -- San Antonio clearly lost that healthy fear Popovich always talks about. That helped put the Spurs into a 15-point hole.
Nets coach Byron Scott, to his (belated) credit, also rediscovered Dikembe Mutombo and gave in to the widespread calls to get Martin away from Duncan. Martin can handle the assignment as well as any one man can. Still, it makes no sense for the Nets to waste their best offensive player in a defensive scheme that puts him in serious jeopardy of fouling out or, at the minimum, draining all his energy ... with every chance that Duncan will flourish anyway.
You can talk about the Spurs' 22 turnovers or how Mutombo has joined the Nets at last -- only 10 months after they traded for him -- or how even Collins unnerved Duncan as early as the first quarter, when TD reeled off three misses from the field and a charging foul soon after Collins took over for Martin as the Duncan stopper.
Yet it was mostly the free throws, to make you wonder which Shaq facsimile we'll see from here.
Game 1's Duncan?
Or Game 2's?
Tim Duncan can be as dominating as Shaquille O'Neal. He can brick free throws like him, too.