Recently, the good folks at ESPN.com put together a terrific oral history of Kobe Bryant's 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors for the tenth anniversary of its occurrence, on Jan. 22, 2006. Which made me wonder where the oral history was for the fifteenth anniversary of Tim Duncan's career-high 53 points against the Mavericks on Dec. 26, 2001? Naturally, I had to put on my reporting hat and fill the void.
(I advise you to read the Kobe thing first if you can. It's long but good, and some of the following jokes will make more sense if you've read it.)
Act V: "I really don't know what Nellie was thinking."
Don Nelson: To me, it was simple. They scored 35 in that second quarter, they had a few guys who were hot for them and I was tired of doubling Tim and leaving people wide open and getting my ass kicked. He was too good passing out of it. I made the decision to just guard him straight up and take my chances. I figured he'd get bored or maybe feel guilty and selfish taking every shot. He wasn't Jordan or Kobe. That wasn't his mentality. ... Guarding him with Dirk was maybe not my best idea.
Antonio Daniels, Spurs guard, 1998-2002: We couldn't believe what we were seeing on the bench. We were too shocked to even laugh or anything, which was good because Pop would've gone ballistic if he saw anyone do that. Listen, I know Dirk's a bad-ass. He's one of the best to ever do it. But he didn't have much meat on his bones back then and he couldn't handle TD. Nobody could, really.
Dirk Nowitzki: I was beginning to wonder if Nellie was mad at me. I was trying my best, and I got Tim a few times, got a steal, took a charge, he missed a couple. But yeah that wasn't the most fun quarter of my career.
Mike Budenholzer: Nellie surprised us a bit coming out of half, coming out with Manning instead of [Eduardo] Najera. It moved Howard to the five, spaced the floor even more for them and screwed us all up defensively. We had made all these half-time adjustments to try and slow down Dirk and then Manning just started killing us like he was back at Kansas with Larry [Brown] again. They were two steps ahead of us all game, and every time we caught on, Nellie had another trick in the bag.
Bruce Bowen: It wasn't exactly like that. They didn't stop doubling until I hit a three in the corner a couple of minutes into the third. TD led us in assists that game too.
Gregg Popovich: Well we had to have somebody pass the ball since our "point guard" wasn't going to.
Tony Parker: That's just Pop being Pop. I remember I missed an layup in the third quarter and Timmy got an easy tip-in and I think that got him going. So I had the Kobe assist. And then they put Dirk on him and we had a mismatch you know, so we just went to him every time.
Steve Nash: Yeah, I really don't know what Nellie was thinking with that one. I figured he wanted to piss Mark off for whatever reason. I was early in my career and I wasn't about to offer unsolicited opinions to a coach who'd been in the league since before I was born. Nellie was the first coach who gave me a real chance to play and I wasn't looking to mess with that. It's not like he was asking me to guard Tim, although I guess he might as well have.
Dirk Nowitzki: Ha-ha. I'm gonna wear my championship ring next time I see Steve.
Malik Rose: They just kept coming at us in waves. Every time we slowed one guy down, another got hot. Tim Hardaway roasted us late in that third quarter. How many of y'all even remember him playing for Dallas? They just had so many random guys. Cuban would just collect whoever he could get who he'd heard of, I think.
Sean Elliott: I was definitely getting flashbacks to that playoff series (in 1991) against the Warriors with Hardaway making shots and Nellie on the bench. Those Dallas teams were kind of like how we are now, moving the ball, everyone being a threat to score, with a deep bench. You couldn't focus on taking just one or two guys away. We were more multifaceted the next year with Tony another year older, Jack a bigger part of things, Manu into the program, just more guys who were athletic and could drive into the paint, score from different spots on the floor and create for themselves and others. Who knows, maybe subconsciously that game planted a seed in Pop's mind.
Gregg Popovich: I think Sean might be smoking something that was planted.
Del Harris: Don't let him fool you. There was always a method to Nellie's madness. You've got to understand, he championed Dirk more than anyone. He's the one who traded for him. Nellie loved Dirk more than Mark did, more than Nash did, more than anybody. But he wanted him to get tougher, so the chance to go mano-a-mano with Duncan, it was like a test. Dirk didn't do very well, but he didn't back down or hang his head either. Winning the game was kind of a bonus, though Mark was ranting and raving behind us like it was Game 7 of the Finals like he always did when we played the Spurs or the Lakers.
Duncan had 25 points through three quarters, which is certainly a big night but hardly extraordinary. The Spurs took the lead on a few occasions in the back-and-fourth third stanza, but Dallas closed with the final three baskets to take an 86-82 advantage into the fourth quarter.
Tim Duncan: I'm sure it felt like just another game to me at the time and it feels like just another game talking about it now. I feel like maybe I'm being too subtle because you don't seem to understand how little I care about this.
Act VI: "He was like a machine."
Antonio Daniels: Going into the fourth there was nothing that special about the game. It was a little higher scoring than we were used to, but nothing crazy, you know? Tim had it going, with 25 points through three quarters, but he's Tim Duncan, he had lots of games like that. We just had no idea what was coming. I don't think Tim had any idea. We kept assuming that eventually they'd start doubling.
Sean Elliott: This is going to sound weird, but I think the bird delay at the end of the third quarter helped us. You know San Antonio, we always have some varmints flying around and there was this bird that somehow got in the arena and caused a couple of delays. The second one came right at the end of the third quarter, when there was going to be a commercial break anyway, so it allowed Tim to get a nice long rest and to catch his second wind I think. Maybe the Mavs were too busy keeping their heads on a swivel and making sure they wouldn't get crapped on to notice the big ugly guy with the ball.
Michael Finley: That bird messed up our rhythm for sure. We had like one basket the first four minutes of the fourth quarter. You know the Spurs are going to make a run, especially at home, and we weren't as locked in as we should've been. We were still a young team. We got back into it mentally after Nellie called time, on offense at least. Defense was a different story.
Steve Nash: What was our defensive strategy? Hope Duncan gets bored of dunking on us. It sort of worked.
Bruce Bowen: TD carried us all game, but especially in the fourth. 8-for-8 from the field, 5-for-5 from the line, 21 points. That's a great game for most of us. And we needed every last one because we couldn't stop a cold that night. Pop was reaming us all out and we deserved it.
Mike Budenholzer: They were cold until they called that time out, and then I don't think we ever stopped them again the last eight minutes. It was ridiculous. Dirk, Fin, Nash... they made everything. We could never make a run.
Gregg Popovich: Timmy was special offensively, obviously, but it wasn't his best game on the defensive end of the floor. Everyone was pretty terrible that night, to be honest. They kept forcing switches where Tony had to guard Dirk, and I think Tony was like 5'4 and 115 pounds back then and 13 years old, so you can guess how that worked out.
Tony Parker: I think I've fouled out three or four times my whole career but that was the first, you know? Pop was so mad. I don't think he was going to play me that much more anyway, I was not having my best game.
Malik Rose: That whole fourth quarter was like a scene from Rocky, just trading punches. We score, they score, we score, they score, with no stops at all. The only difference was they had a bunch of guys doing it and TD was getting all of ours, it seemed like.
Mike Brown: Oh, he was a bad boy that night. Tim's had his ups and downs at the free throw line, but he was shooting them really well that year and you know how it is when guys get in the zone. He finished 15-of-15, including some big ones late. I'm not sure if he's ever made that many in a game without missing ever again, but I don't care if you're Nash or Reggie [Miller] or Steph [Curry], that's hard for anyone, let alone a 7-footer.
Dirk Nowitzki: He had it all going for sure. Drop steps, drives, baseline step backs, the half-hook. I tried to make him work but he was like a machine. You don't see many highlight clips of Duncan, but he was all over SportsCenter that night and they were all of him torching me. I should've tried something different, maybe talked some trash. Maybe it would've made him laugh and taken him out of his game.
Del Harris: The last few minutes Nellie did change it up and we tried different guys on Tim. Howard, mostly, I think. It didn't matter. He was too hot by then. Our best defense was to keep scoring, but mainly Nellie was hellbent on not giving them any threes.
Don Nelson: So naturally that S.O.B. gets three three-point plays anyway.
Tim Duncan: Three 'and-1's' in the fourth quarter? Yeah, I guess you'd think I'd remember something like that. Still drawing a blank.
Bruce Bowen: He's probably messing with you. He could probably describe every basket he scored if he wanted to. I'm not saying he watches the game once a week at his house or anything, but players remember their career games.
Antonio Daniels: Nah, that's just Bruce. The one time he scores 30, he'll remember it. It was just another night at the office for Tim.
Gregg Popovich: Bruce can tell you about every game he scored more than 10. Just ask him. He'll tell you what suit he wore to the arena, what he had for lunch that day, the whole bit.
Steve Nash: We followed our game plan the whole fourth quarter, didn't double Tim, didn't allow any threes and then sure enough I blew the game for us. We were up three with the ball and I turned it over and Porter hits a three in transition. And then I had a good look at the end to win it and missed so we had to go overtime. I thought I let the team down and cost us the game.
Terry Porter, Spurs guard, 1999-2002: I was pretty much at the end by then. When the coach is starting a guy that's literally young enough to be your son, it's time for you to move on. I remember that I didn't shoot it very well that night, but I did get that one to go in for me and it felt good. I didn't want to waste Tim's performance. I can tell you as grouchy as we all were after the game, my body was even grouchier the next morning after playing 32 minutes.
Mike Finley: That game was so huge for our evolution. We blew the late lead and went into overtime but nobody got down, nobody hung their head. We just kept playing. Right away Steve made a shot and then Hardaway got one and we were up four and I was like 'We got 'em.' And then it was like I blinked and Tim scored seven points and we were down three.
Malik Rose: We had so many chances. I missed two bunnies back-to-back. I can still see them now in my head. But Tim had that run and I thought we were good. We needed to help him out. It just wasn't to be, I guess.
R.C. Buford: There have been some painful three-pointers allowed in Timmy's era, but I say with no hyperbole that one by Hardaway is right there near the top of the list. It was just such an out-of-nowhere shot. He just pulled up from 27 feet with like 20 seconds left on the shot clock. You see Curry do that now, but nobody would think to do it then, especially in that game situation. It's the kind of shot that would get a guy cut if he missed it.
Tim Hardaway, Mavericks guard, 2001-2002: They were a young team and I felt they needed a veteran presence to step up and hit a shot for them at that moment. I could tell they really respected my experience and wisdom because they traded me to the Nuggets three months later for Nick Van Exel.
Steve Nash: The game came full circle. Dirk was getting abused by Tim all game but then he gets the steal at the end and I blew it in regulation but got the winner in overtime. It was very gratifying. I think we had a few adult beverages on the plane home.
Dirk Nowitzki: I realized nothing I tried on defense was working so if I wanted to help the team I better do something on the other end and I got a few shots to fall in the fourth. It ended up being a pretty good duel between me and Tim going into overtime and I guess it wouldn't be our last.
Act VII: Final thoughts
David Robinson: Wow, 53... that's a lot of points. It's not 71 or anything, but it's quite a lot.
Mike Budenholzer: I think as good as Tim was, to lose that game, it probably helped us in the long run. Maybe it made us realize subconsciously we needed more weapons, that we needed to get more athletic around the perimeter.
Gregg Popovich: Baloney. It made us realize we can't allow 126 points if we want to win. It was a regular season loss. Who cares? There are more important things going on in the world.
Kawhi Leonard, Spurs forward, 2011-present: I didn't know anything about it. I was 10.
Really? No recollections at all, Kawhi?
Well... I've never spoke about this before in any interview and haven't even shared it with friends or family, but the truth is that I was quite a rambunctious, hyperactive kid. I had a smart mouth and was always getting into trouble at school and on the street talking back and acting out. I was the class clown, standing on my table and making fun of the teacher, making fun of kids bigger and stronger than me, trying to make the other kids laugh but mostly just causing problems for my parents. I was always grounded for one thing or another. Then, one day, I just happened to be watching a basketball game on TV and it just happened to be Tim's 53-point game. I didn't even like basketball back then, didn't know anything about the Spurs. But something happened to me that night. I was enraptured by Tim's grace, his quiet elegance on the court and most of all his warrior-like stoicism. He was dominating the game but never said a word, just let the actions speak for themselves. He inspired me that night. Instantly I went from a wild, directionless youth into the person you see today. If it wasn't for Tim and the way he played that night, my life would be completely different, and that's why I play so hard as his teammate every night, why I want so badly to win another championship for him. It's my way of honoring and paying tribute to what he did for me and my family.
Oh my god, that's incredible! He really had that profound of an affect on you?
No. I didn't know anything about it. I was 10.
Tim Duncan: I guess I was in the zone or feeling it or whatever it may be. We still came up short and such is life. I just don't have anything more to say about it, but I promise I'll share all my thoughts and feelings and emotions the next time I score 53.