In an NBA Finals that features seven future Hall of Famers, two have separated themselves from the pack. Even among the best of the best, Tim Duncan and LeBron James stand out. Duncan did most of his damage in the first half of Game 2, but he still finished with 18 points and 15 rebounds, which tied him with Magic Johnson for most double-doubles in playoff history. LeBron, meanwhile, had a game for the ages, with 35 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists.
If you had every player in basketball history in an open gym, LeBron and Duncan would take two of the ten spots when you made teams. The stats only tell part of it - they are the their team's most valuable player on both sides of the ball. When you have a player whose presence guarantees a great defense and offense, it's almost impossible not to have an elite team. Duncan has missed the second round three times in his career; LeBron hasn't missed it since his second season.
Even at 37, the Miami Heat don't have an answer for Duncan. At 6'11 250, he's bigger than any of the Heat big men and his presence in the lane collapses the defense and opens up the floor. While he no longer commands a double team on the block, he's still a very effective pick-and-roll player, particularly against a Miami team that doesn't have a lot of size on the back-line. You could really see the size differential on the glass, where Duncan had 7 offensive rebounds.
The San Antonio Spurs, like the rest of the NBA, don’t have an answer for LeBron, especially when he is hitting from the outside. He took over Game 2 in the third quarter, when he had 10 points in a little over 2 minutes.
“You’re not going to block his jump shot. He’s 6’9 and he’s pretty athletic,” said Danny Green. “So you’ve got to live with contested jumpers.” When he’s making those shots, all you can do is shake his hand and go the other way.
On defense, LeBron’s unparalleled versatility gives the Heat a tremendous amount of options in terms of setting their line-ups. Duncan is the only player on the Spurs roster he can’t guard - Erik Spoelstra can sic LeBron on Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Green, Kawhi Leonard or Boris Diaw and take them out of the game.
Depending on how the game is going, Miami can go big or go small at the drop of a hat, knowing that LeBron can guard just about anyone.
Duncan is just as essential to the Spurs game-plan on that side of the floor. He no longer has the lateral quickness and explosiveness of his youth, when he was a perennial Defensive Player of the Year contender, but he still has elite length and a great sense of where to position himself.
“He is probably one of the best players at protecting the rim, so they are able to funnel a lot of stuff to him,” said LeBron. “In that sense, he is a very, very smart guy.”
A high basketball IQ is one of the commonalities in their games. You can’t take away everything from the other player and LeBron and Duncan almost always make the right play.
“It’s about seeing things before they happen, putting guys in position, reading my teammates, knowing who is out of rhythm, who is in rhythm, who has it going on the other end, knowing their likes and dislikes and being able to calibrate that in a game situation,” said LeBron.
In that sense, it’s very hard to make an adjustment against either player. They have seen it all - they know all the counters and all the possible counter-moves. After starting slow in the 2013 NBA Finals, both have figured out their other team’s strategy. In his last 6 playoff games against the Spurs, LeBron is averaging 31 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists on 51% shooting. Duncan in that stretch is averaging 22 points and 12 rebounds on 52% shooting.
Both teams put so much shooting around their best player that it’s impossible to take away their offense.
“You can double [LeBron] if you want,” said Gregg Popovich. “He’s a pretty good player. I’m going to guess he’s going to find the open man.” The same is true for Duncan, whose seen double and triple teams since he first came into the league. All either team can do is try and keep someone in front of the other team’s star and hope for the best.
When they aren’t scoring, they can both take over a game on defense or on the glass. In Game 2, Duncan led the Spurs with 15 rebounds and LeBron lead the Heat with 10. None of the wings on San Antonio’s roster can box out LeBron and none of the big men on Miami’s roster can box out Duncan. They are physically dominant players who have an edge in strength and length against every player they face who also know how to position their bodies.
It’s what you would expect from two of the greatest players to ever play the game. Where exactly they stack up amongst the 10-15 greatest players of all-time is a fairly subjective exercise because you are splitting hairs at that point, but you can put either Duncan or LeBron’s resume up against anyone and they come out looking pretty good. The shame is they never faced each other in their prime - LeBron was too young in 2007 and Duncan is too old now.
As dominant as he has been in this series, Duncan isn’t nearly the player he was in the early 2000’s, when he could single-handedly take over a game on either side of the ball. San Antonio can’t pound the ball inside to him for 40 minutes and he can’t shut down the paint on defense. LeBron and Chris Bosh both put Duncan on a poster at various times in Game 2 - he was right there to make a play at the rim, he just no longer had the ups to play at 11+ feet.
Most importantly, at his age, it’s hard to see Duncan being able to go more than the 38 minutes he played in Game 2. The 38 minutes LeBron played on Sunday, in contrast, are closer to the floor for what he can give the Heat going forward. That’s one of the biggest benefits of being in your prime - there’s more gas in your tank to go that little extra longer. LeBron is 29 and Duncan is 38. In a series this close, that could ultimately prove to be the difference.