Duncan shrugged off a stretch of eight straight misses to dominate the fourth quarter of Game 7, finishing with 25 points and 11 rebounds as the Spurs beat the Detroit Pistons 81-74 Thursday night.
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Duncan earned his third MVP of the finals, giving San Antonio its third title in seven years and denying Detroit a chance to repeat.
"He showed that he can not only deal with that pressure, but overcome it," former teammate David Robinson said.
"A lot of athletes would have crumbled under that type of pressure, but he came out in that second half and showed unbelievable championship character. I'm so proud of him because he just really solidified himself as one of the top couple of power forwards ever. I mean, unbelievable character — just awesome," he said.
In turning around the worst postseason series of his career, Duncan teamed with Manu Ginobili to help the Spurs overcome a nine-point deficit in the third quarter to tie it going into the final period.
The Spurs are certainly not a dynasty, but their staying power as a championship caliber team — and their performance in the NBA's first Game 7 in the finals since 1994 — helps validate their legacy.
Ginobili scored 23 points with a series of slashing, scintillating drives and big passes, and his drive through traffic for a layup late in the fourth quarter took the last of the fight out of the Pistons.
"I don't even think we've scratched the surface of him," Duncan said. "He's going to continue to grow, and we're going to continue to grow around him."
Behind Duncan, the stoic established star, and Ginobili, the flashy young Argentine who won an Olympic gold medal in Athens, the Spurs celebrated on their home court with silver and black confetti streaming down from the rafters.
"We just played a great team. I don't know how the hell we did it, but I am thrilled," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after embracing good friend Larry Brown as the game ended. Popovich became the third coach with three titles, while the Detroit coach headed into an uncertain future.
"I'm just as proud this year as I was last year," Brown said.
The Pistons recovered from two early blowout losses, won twice and then split the next two games before Duncan and the Spurs reasserted themselves in the end.
The NBA had waited a long time for a game with so much at stake and so little room for error. And the difference came in the fourth quarter, when the Spurs were able to make the plays the Pistons couldn't.
Midway through the period, Ginobili assisted on a 3-pointer by Robert Horry and Duncan found Bruce Bowen alone outside the arc for another 3 that put San Antonio ahead 67-61. Detroit pulled within four before the Duncan-Ginobili combo clicked perfectly on two straight possessions.
First, Ginobili drove the lane and drew Duncan's defender, zipping a pass to Duncan all alone on the baseline for a 19-footer. Next, Duncan had three defenders collapsing on him when he saw Ginobili all alone at the 3-point line. The shot was perfect, and San Antonio led 72-65 with 2:57 left.
Detroit's next three possessions brought an airball, a foul shot and an offensive foul, but all San Antonio could produce over that shot was a single free throw by Duncan. The score was 73-68 entering the final minute when Ginobili made the play that clinched it, weaving through several defenders for a layup that was almost too easy, making it 75-68.
Detroit had won 10 straight postseason games with a chance to eliminate its opponent and was trying to become the first team in NBA history to win two Game 7s on the road in a postseason. As resilient as they were, that turned out to be too tough of a task.
"It's just an unbelievable feeling," Ginobili said.
Duncan's greatness was as much in question as his team's. He had struggled through out the series against a superior defensive team, the Pistons presenting the toughest test the Spurs had faced in the finals after defeating the 1999 Knicks and the 2003 Nets, teams that might have been a little too pleased just to have a shot at the title.
Duncan came up short on a dunk and a 21-footer early in the third quarter, giving him six consecutive misses, and Detroit slowly began to build upon its lead. A dunk by Tayshaun Prince, a steal and two foul shots by Chauncey Billups, a poor possession by San Antonio and a spin move by Antonio McDyess made it 48-39.
Duncan's string of misses reached eight before he converted a three-point play, and Ginobili drove for a score off a turnover to complete a 7-0 run that got the Spurs right back in it. A 14-foot bank shot by Duncan — a part of his usual repertoire that had been absent in this series — produced a 53-53 tie before he knocked down another shot off the glass, this time from a few steps farther away, to help produce a 57-57 tie entering the fourth.
Duncan had 12 points and six rebounds in the third quarter.
By Chris Sheridan