clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Tim Duncan, Bill Russell, and winning as the ultimate statistic

New, comments

Tim Duncan went without a field goal against the Bulls last week, but that game ties him ever more closely to the legend of Bill Russell.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

On Feb. 26, 1994, while the Spurs were wasting a typically awesome performance from David Robinson (32 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists) in a 104-96 loss at Portland, something quite atypical was happening on the other side of the country.

In Virginia, where Robinson spent most of his formative years, a 17-year-old Tim Duncan did not make a single field goal in Wake Forest's game that night against the Virginia Cavaliers. Duncan went on to participate in 1,644 meaningful games, 101 in college, 1,310 in the NBA regular season and 234 more in the playoffs, before playing in another contest in which he didn't make a bucket.

The length of the Bulls bothered Duncan in last week's game. Joakim Noah has always given him a difficult time, and Duncan took only eight shots in the game, almost all of them jumpers. He had precious few touches in the post, which is where his bread has been buttered most of the season.

Still, it's easy to feel that the main reason Duncan didn't force the issue is because the Spurs won comfortably, beating the Bulls 116-105, for their fifth victory in a row. They're on their way to another 50-plus win year, which they've accomplished in each of Duncan's previous 17 seasons, with the lone exception of the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season which only had 50 games in the regular season.

When we think about winning in the NBA, Michael Jordan springs to mind --his record in Finals games is 24-11 to Duncan's 23-11-- though if you're of a certain age or at least enough of a historian of the game, you go back to Bill Russell, the Celtics icon who won 11 championships in his 13-year career. Russell is Duncan's spiritual doppelganger, both in temperament and mentality and somewhat in playing style as well.

In some areas, Duncan is clearly superior. He's more talented offensively than Russell ever was, a better outside shooter and more of a threat inside. Russell, who was 6-9 and 215 pounds, was of average size for a big man in the eight-team NBA when his career started, but by his final season every squad in the expanded 14-team league had bigger centers than him.

Where Russell excelled was in his own end, gobbling up scores of rebounds and blocking countless shots -- literally countless as the league didn't keep records of blocks back then. To give you an idea of his abilities, in the final collegiate game of his career, on Mar. 24, 1956, Russell had 26 points, 27 rebounds and 20 blocks against Iowa in the championship game, leading the University of San Francisco to their second consecutive NCAA title. In another winner-take-all game, Game 7 of the 1962 Finals against the Lakershe scored 30 points and grabbed 40 rebounds in an overtime win. Russell played in 10 Game 7's in his career and was a perfect 10-0 in them. Though Duncan never could leap like Russell and isn't quite in his class as a shot-blocker, one trait they had in common was their shared intuitiveness to tap blocks to themselves or to a teammate to start a fast break rather than trying to whack it arrogantly out of bounds.

As Russell told Bill Simmons in the excellent Mr. Russell's House interview, "I don't they approached shots the way I did. All the guys that followed me approached blocking shots as a defensive maneuver. I approached them as an offensive maneuver."

It's their approach to the game that unifies Russell and Duncan. Both will forever be linked by having played for just one franchise and one coach, though for Russell's final three seasons he succeeded Red Auerbach and was player-coach for the Celtics. There's no question that two legends had similar relationships with their coaches. A couple of excerpts from an interview Russell granted Michael McClennan:

"I have enormous respect for Red, as you know," Russell says quickly.  "It was a special relationship - I actually loved the man.  And I never played for him - we worked together.  That's the reason for our success.

"I trusted Red explicitly - there was never a single day that I mistrusted him.  He was an absolutely brilliant man - his background was in mathematics, and he was a master at psychology.  He had the best set of ears that I've ever known when it comes to a man in his position.  He would have two or three conversations with a player, and he would know how to relate to the player from then on.  He understood that you couldn't treat everyone the same way, because everyone is wired differently, so he tailored his approach to each player.  That takes an enormous amount of hard work, but the results speak for themselves."

Popovich and Duncan click like no coach and superstar have since Auerbach and Russell. Their philosophies on the game (no frills, no nonsense, no stats, no need for attention, being just about winning and nothing else) are perfectly aligned. Popovich --and General Manager R.C. Buford, for that matter-- are both fond of saying that the Duncan is the keystone of the franchise. Popovich has often joked that as soon as Duncan retires that he'll be "10 steps behind" him, while Buford has quipped, "The truth is we all work for Timmy." To this day, with his offensive role diminished and Kawhi Leonard emerging as the team's best player, Popovich is still adamant that Duncan is the centerpiece, the talisman of the franchise and "the base of everything we do."

Perhaps Duncan's greatest strength is his ability to control his emotions, regardless of circumstance. He graduated with a degree in psychology at Wake Forest and co-wrote a study on "Aversive Interpersonal Behaviors" in his spare time from dominating the ACC. Duncan explained once in a story he wrote for Sport that his stone-faced demeanor is a deliberate strategy, a weapon he uses no different than his bank shot (and far more effective in recent years).

People in college thought I was lackadaisical because I didn't show emotion. They thought I was soft because I didn't yell with every rebound. Emotions must not always be shown, if you show excitement, then you may also show disappointment or frustration. If your opponent picks up on this frustration, you are at a disadvantage. I made sure my opponents didn't know what was going on in my head, I guess thats why the fans never knew either. Basketball is like a chess game, you cannot reveal all that you are thinking or you will be at a sizeable disadvantage to your opponent. 

Basketball to some players is mainly a physical event, to me it is both physical and mental. You must not only conquer your opponents physically, you must also beat them mentally. You must at times out think them. I have to use my shot fakes and things that will work for me. In order to beat my opponent, I have to make basketball become a thinking man's game.

That echoes Russell's quote about mentally dominating opponents in his book Russell Rules: 11 Lessons on Leadership From the Twentieth Century's Greatest Winner...

My best nights were rarely ones that showed up in the box scores. I was once asked to name the best game I ever played. I thought about a play-off game where I had something like 30 points and 40 rebounds against the Lakers, but then I thought there were so many games where I had fewer rebounds, assists and blocked shots, where I wound up scoring only eight or ten points, but where I was really far more effective. Those games were always ones where I knew I was in the heads of the players on the other side. I could see how they altered shots or sometimes refused to take them for fear that I was somewhere nearby-even though I wasn't. Sometimes during these games I would be on the bench watching this happen. It was amazing. Opposing players seemed to be looking for me even though I wasn't on the court.

While I couldn't find the quote, I'm positive that Russell once said that the best game he ever played, the closest he ever got to perfection on an NBA court, was one in which he shot 0-of-8 from the field. I don't know if I read it in some interview he gave or in some passage from one of his books, or watched it in an interview or even some commercial, but I swear I didn't hallucinate it.

Anyway, I think it's fitting that Duncan happened to go 0-for-8 on the night he finally got blanked. I strongly doubt he'll ever refer to that night against the Bulls as the best game he ever played, but the important thing is that the Spurs won, as they've done over 70 percent of the time when Duncan's suited up.

It probably won't come as a shock that back on Feb. 26, 1994, the Demon Deacons beat the Cavaliers easily, winning 63-45. You may also recall once Russell told Duncan that he's his all-time favorite player. Could it be any other way? These giants relate to one another as few people can. They may have been born 42 years apart, but they might as well be twins. They're different people with different interests and lives off the floor, but when the ball went in the air their sole objective is to win the game. For those two hours nothing else matters, and certainly not their personal stats. When Duncan goes without a bucket in a loss, that's when it'll be time to worry.