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J.A. ADANDE

Spurring Them On

Laker opponent: San Antonio has gone from 'soft' to soft-spoken with the emergence of Tim Duncan as its go-to guy in only his second season.

May 17, 1999|J.A. ADANDE

MINNEAPOLIS — Turns out there is an edge to Tim Duncan after all.

He's not just a robot walking around in there, the emotionless character who once was referred to as "Spock" by Duke fans when he was at Wake Forest.

Just spend some time around him. Watch San Antonio Spur teammate Antonio Daniels defy him to make a bank shot during pregame warmups, see Duncan kiss the ball off the glass and in, hear him tell Daniels to "get some of that."

When his jersey gets tugged you might catch a glimpse of the tattoo on his back right shoulder or the wizard with a basketball tattooed on his chest.

Ask him what discs are currently in his CD changer and he'll name hard-core rappers like DMX and Nas.

Mario Elie, the veteran whose verbal assault on the team after its lackluster start sparked their run to the best record in the league, doesn't find it necessary to get on Duncan.

"Tim, he'll get on me," Elie said. " 'Let's go, let's go. Let's get this done.' I wouldn't have seen that earlier in the year."

Tim Duncan didn't have to be this way. He had it good, in a way few other No. 1 overall draft picks have. He was on a veteran team with an established star, David Robinson, who had been injured almost the entire season before Duncan was drafted. He could have adopted the young apprentice role, fetching coffee and running memos off on the copier.

Except Robinson isn't the most vocal, forceful guy in the league. There was a void there. Not anymore.

"I think he's kind of grown into this role this year," Robinson said. "He's been our go-to guy. That's been fun for him. He's got that great talent down on the block. He's been great at that. It's been more my job to kind of get in there and set a tone, control the defense and control the boards. And I'm having fun with that.

"He's getting more comfortable with his role. He takes that responsibility and he loves it."

Duncan is the No. 1 player the Lakers have to stop in their best-of-seven playoff series that begins tonight in San Antonio.

Avery Johnson is an underrated sparkplug of a point guard. Robinson still can make contributions at both ends of the court. Elie, who earned two championship rings with the Houston Rockets, brings some toughness the team has lacked throughout the Robinson era. But it's Duncan who is the beginning and end of this team.

"I've gotten comfortable with it," Duncan said. "I think they moved me into that role. I'm starting to be more comfortable with what I'm doing."

A leading vote-getter on the NBA's all-defensive team, he also led the league with 37 double-doubles. He averaged 21.7 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks this season.

He's a great low-post threat, or he can step out to the top of the key and free up the lane for Robinson.

"He's a heck of an offensive threat from a lot of places out on the court and we want to take advantage of that," San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's got the kind of demeanor that he will accept that and welcome it. But at the same time, when the situation arises, he's going to give up the basketball and make other people better, also."

He can guard other players out on the floor or mix it up with the big guys inside. All while playing where Popovich almost apologetically asks him to play, at power forward instead of center.

That's fine with Duncan.

"I've never been a center," Duncan said. "I don't think so. Sometimes I'm the tallest person on my team. If that makes me a center, then that I am.

"I'm a basketball player, I do whatever it takes."

Duncan has done more than expected almost since the beginning. Even as a rookie last year, he wasn't fazed by the playoff pressure. His average of 20.7 points in nine postseason games was just about the same as his 21.1 average during the regular season.

"I wasn't intimidated by it," Duncan said. "You just have to walk into that first playoff and see how intense it is, see how that intensity is different from the regular season.

"You get hit a couple of times. People are going full speed. People that usually don't do things are now doing things. You've got to know everybody's coming with a different level of intensity, everybody's coming at you."

Rather than shrink from it, Duncan rose to the occasion. The Spurs even ran plays for him in crucial situations.

So don't think he's not tough just because he turns and runs down court instead of staring down his opponents or thumping his chest after dunks.

"He doesn't say much, but that guy is always ready to play," Elie said.

"Everybody takes his quietness for being soft. The boy's not soft. The boy's focused. Kevin Garnett gets in his face in Game 1 [of their first-round series against the Minnesota Timberwolves], he laughs it off and has a great game. Tim doesn't get caught up in that, he just goes out and does whatever it takes."

For years the Spurs have been trying to shake that "soft" reputation--which originated with Robinson. It's not his team anymore, so the label doesn't apply.

They're quietly tough, just like Tim Duncan.

J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: j.a.adande@latimes.com

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Main Man

Tim Duncan is the player the Lakers have to stop in their best-of-seven playoff series that begins tonight in San Antonio. Comparing Duncan's two seasons:

REGULAR SEASON

*--*

1997-98 Category 1999 .549 FG% .495 .662 FT% .690 11.9 Rebounds 11.4 2.7 Assists 2.4 21.1 Points 21.7

*--*

PLAYOFFS

*--*

1997-98 Category 1999 .521 FG% .460 .667 FT% .773 9.0 Rebounds 10.8 1.9 Assists 3.3 20.7 Points 18.8

*--*

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