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I didn't know Tim Duncan ever got publicly fired up. Now that he is, this NBA Finals has jumped several notches in intensity.
This is a great series starting Thursday, with all sorts of guaranteed and possible Hall of Fame players, from Duncan to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to Ray Allen, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Chris Bosh. You've got the old-school, wise-guy coach in Gregg Popovich with the Spurs and the crafty and underrated young-school (is that a word?) coach in Erik Spoelstra with the Heat.
But I'm most eager to see the annoyed Duncan and what he brings as his San Antonio Spurs try to derail the Miami Heat juggernaut.
Duncan has a nickname that defies flash – the Big Fundamental, epitomized by old-fashioned bank shots – and his most lasting legacy is the simple fact he wins. He has four rings, one shy of Magic Johnson, two shy of Michael Jordan. He belongs in the same paragraph with those guys.
Now Duncan seems flat-out mad, supremely motivated and willing to share that take with the world. Look out: Duncan speaks!
“It's unbelievable to regain that focus after that devastating loss that we had last year," Duncan said. "But we're back here. We're excited about it. We've got four more to win. We'll do it this time. We're happy it's the Heat again. We've got that bad taste in our mouths still."
I love when millionaire pro athletes get fired up like this. It illustrates what I love most about sports, the fact that there are athletes who play the game for unfathomable riches, yet they're driven by their innate competitive fire.
Duncan's old by pro standards (38) and has nothing left to prove. In my mind, he's a top 10 player of all time, although if I start listing the greatest, it's hard to squeeze everyone into the top 10.
In his era, which stretches back to 1997-98, he's been a fixture as one of the best players – and finest winners – in the league.
Duncan and company had the Heat on the ropes last year, battered like Stallone in every “Rocky,” and saw them bounce up off the canvas, lifted by Allen's devastating corner three-pointer in Game 6. This has stuck in their collective craws for a year. That's a lot of stewing, occasionally soothed by tons of winning.
With that type of added motivation, plus the superb coaching of Popovich, the Spurs would seem to have that extra edge.
Miami is going for a Pat Riley registered trademark and has lots of motivation of its own.
This is the series where – pardon the sacrilege, MJ fans – James can match Jordan's first run of three consecutive titles. The Heat were built by the coordination of then-free agents James and Bosh joining forces with Wade in Miami. They held a pro-wrestling style news conference, not long after James botched “The Decision,” and essentially alienated and annoyed everyone outside of Heat fans.
Still, Miami's “Big Three” have done what they said they would, and that's become the NBA team to beat year after year. This is their fourth straight trip to the Finals, an accomplishment that should not be sold short considering the difficulties in dealing with roster changes, inevitable injuries and old-fashioned fatigue. Remember, the Indiana Pacers couldn't get along in the locker room for a season as the No.1 seed. Miami's players continue to jell four years into their run, if you don't count everyone picking on Mario Chalmers.
The way the Heat players responded to Lance Stephenson's antics against James was instructive: They rallied around him, Bosh in particular. That shows a team that has chemistry.
Duncan's words aren't going to rile the Heat the way Stephenson did, but the actions that follow could up the ante. I expect the intensity of this series to percolate throughout both lineups until a few collisions or words heighten the competitive juices some more.
Tim Duncan clearly means business, and that means this series will be a pleasure to watch.