SAN ANTONIO — It’s all right in front of Tim Duncan now, and the big man can feel it.
You can tell when he broke out that little spin move in the paint in Game 5 on Sunday night, a nimble little display of footwork that has mostly been in moth balls for the past four or five seasons.
You can tell by the elevation he got on a first-quarter dunk, one of the most emphatic he’s had in years.
And you can tell by the glimmer that can’t be hidden by the far-away look in his eyes when he talks about being one victory away from title No. 5.
“I think every one of us wants this very badly from the top on down,” Duncan said after scoring 17 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in a 114-104 victory over the Miami Heat that gave his San Antonio Spurs a 3-2 lead in the NBA Finals.
“We’re trying to play that way. We just need to put it on the floor and understand the kind of energy and the kind of aggression they’re going to come with next game.”
The 37-year-old Duncan has been asked about retirement and heard the reports of his Spurs’ demise for years now. His time, his team’s time, is supposed to be long gone.
This is LeBron’s league now. This is the Heat’s year.
Yet there he was on Sunday night, out-muscling Heat star Chris Bosh, who grew up with Duncan posters on the walls of his Dallas bedroom.
There he was walking up to Tony Parker before the opening tip to offer some quiet words that set the tone.
There he was drawing double teams that sucked in the Heat defense and allowed Danny Green to slip undetected into the corner for 3-pointer after back-breaking 3-pointer.
“We’ve been in situations like this. We’ve been together for a long time,” Duncan said. “So that definitely plays a role. I think we’re just trying to do all we can to will it to happen.”
Duncan may not be putting up the monster numbers that he used to when the Spurs were winning titles every other year in the middle of the past decade.
But if the Spurs are able to win one of the next two games in Miami — starting with Game 6 on Tuesday night — and dethrone the defending champions, it will be as much due to the unshakeable resolve and unflappable poise that Duncan has instilled in this group as anything else.
Sure, Green is the runaway favorite for finals MVP with his record-setting shooting from the outside. But Duncan is the one who draws the attention down low to give him so many clean looks.
Sure, Parker is the focal point of the Spurs offense and has been for several years. But Duncan is the one who sets those teeth-rattling screens to free him up in San Antonio’s pick-and-roll.
Sure, Gregg Popovich is the mastermind behind the schemes that have turned LeBron James from a force of nature into a flustered jump shooter.
But Duncan is the quarterback on the court, getting everyone in the right places and serving as the anchor should something break down.
“If anybody is crazy in the group, it’s me,” Popovich said. “They pretty much have an even keel. Timmy Duncan sets the tone, and he just competes. Whether he does well or whether he does poorly, game in, game out, year in, year out, he competes and people just follow that.”
That’s why the Spurs are here right now. That’s why they’re so close to doing something no one outside of this silver-and-blacked painted city thought could be done. They’ve never trailed in a finals series because Duncan has never allowed it.
Even when James and the Heat blew them out in Game 2 to tie the series, the Spurs never wavered.
Even when Miami’s three All-Stars dominated Game 4, the Spurs didn’t back down.
It’s a testament to Duncan. To his will. To his tenacity. To his refusal to let anyone bury him, bury his team.
A fifth championship is oh so close now. It would put Duncan’s name alongside other greats such as Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and George Mikan, three titans of the game who stood on top of the NBA mountain five times.
The spotlight-shunning Duncan has rarely been mentioned with the same reverence.
Maybe this would change all that.
“With this fifth one, he dominates his generation,” Johnson said in a conference call last week. “He and Kobe would be the greatest winners during this time. And domination wise, he’ll be just as dominant as any big man that’s ever played, and also be a great winner as well.”