Duncan quieter than expected

Updated: May 14, 2004, 12:39 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- They lost a 10-point halftime lead, and then their series lead, and then they had to concede defeat in one more place.

The San Antonio Spurs were forced to admit that, on this night, their premonitions were wrong.

Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal
Tim Duncan had to work hard for his 19 points in the Spurs' Game 4 loss.
Many of them voiced the pre-game belief that the performance to leave everyone breathless Tuesday night would come from Tim Duncan. That was the inevitable response, they figured, to Duncan's dysfunction in Game 3.

What the Spurs saw instead was the quietest triple-double bid you can imagine.

To be more precise, that's what they saw when they weren't helpless witnesses to Kobe Bryant capping the most real-life day of his 25 years with an unreal 42 points.

Duncan wound up with respectable totals in the Spurs' Game 4 defeat: 19 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. He even made nine free throws in 12 tries, which Gregg Popovich jokingly described as "astounding."

The problem, for San Antonio, is that Duncan has to hack through swarms of Lakers just to do what he did, which doesn't amount to much when Kobe moves at warp speed from a Colorado plea of Not Guilty to Not Guardable in Downtown L.A.

This becomes a bigger problem when Shaquille O'Neal tacks on 28 points, 14 boards and four blocks, canceling out Duncan's production by himself.

"You're not going to stop Tim," Karl Malone said. "You can only try to contain him. But we have a game plan when he gets the basketball, and we seem to be executing it now."

Said Popovich, absolving Duncan from blame for this one: "It comes down to Kobe and Shaq, no matter how you slice it."

Right. From 2-0 down, which Phil Jackson likened to a "death knell," Kobe and Shaq have found harmony. In an instant, they have begun to play with a togetherness absent for much of this roller-coaster season.

Defensively, meanwhile, the Lakers are finally playing with the aggression and unity that Jackson has been longing for since last May. Which prompted Popovich to suggest that the Game 4 victors, in the mood they found at home, now look like the Lakers who started the season with an 18-3 gallop that frightened an entire league.

If that's indeed the case --- if the Lakers can play this way at least once at the SBC Center -- San Antonio has more than a problem or two.

That's because the Lakers, for two games running, have managed to force the ball out of Duncan's hands with the intent to make lesser Spurs take the shots.

How well did it work?

In Game 4, Rasho Nesterovic had more field-goal attempts (14) than Duncan (13).

Duncan, trusting his teammates to make the open shots, had eight assists at halftime and zero thereafter as the Spurs faded.

Maybe more troubling, there were signs of frustration from Duncan. Early and late.

The first hint that the L.A. swarms are getting to him came halfway through the first quarter, when Duncan finally pried loose from his many escorts for an uncontested dunk. In atypical fashion for the so-called Big Fundamental, Duncan wound up for a cathartic tomahawk and missed the dunk badly. Can't remember many missed dunks in Duncan's past.

In the fourth, after a majestic triple from Bryant pushed the Lakers' cushion to 81-73, Duncan realized his team needed its own dose of majesty and tried to answer from the baseline on the Spurs' next possession.

He shot a hurried air ball, then vowed afterward not to do it again.

"I'm going to take my shots when they're there," said Duncan, who was limited to 27 field-goal attempts in the Spurs' two losses here. "I'm not going to force any shots. I'm not better when I force shots. I'm going to take them as they come. They are really sagging in there, trying to take me out of the game. It's my job to find guys. I want to be aggressive and take my shots, but I can't force them."

Popovich also did his part to preach calm. He noted that his team still has the home-court advantage -- in a building where L.A. has never won a playoff game -- and that the Spurs and Lakers are exactly where they were after four games last spring. The Spurs' coach went on to explain that he could accept defeat a bit easier on a night when Shaq got away with repeating his old claim that his little buddy Bryant is "the best player ever."

"He made some unbelievable shots, but he's an unbelievable player," Pop said. "It's not like this is an aberration."

Yet you wonder whether the other Spurs can get hot enough -- at home, perhaps -- to create just enough space for Duncan to have his own unbelievable game in this series.

You sense the Spurs are going to need at least one of those to hold off the Kobe-and-Shaq surge.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

ALSO SEE