BOSTON – The words about Shaquille O'Neal(notes) sounded strange tumbling out of Tim Duncan's(notes) mouth, something between marvel and melancholy. Once, this would've been a night about them, the two best teams in basketball centered upon the Russell and Chamberlain of a generation.
"We're the two godfathers now," Duncan said on Wednesday night. "We're the old players of the league. A lot of history together."
His words trailed away. "…So much history together, so many battles," he finally said.
Out of the gloom of back-to-back losses, the bungling of a final possession in a 105-103 loss at the Garden, something of a smile creased Duncan's face. They've never been buddies, but they're forever bonded, forever linked.
Shaq was Duncan's alter ego, the bigger-than-life cartoon character with peerless power and charisma. He was the comedian and chameleon, a force of nature and humanity. Duncan was the proud, private star full of fundamentals and free of flash.
What made O'Neal and Duncan so compelling, such an epic clash, were the ways they flourished in complete contrast.
"I imagine it was a little like what made Wilt and Russell such a great matchup," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said.
Together, they won eight championships and three MVP trophies and owned the NBA for more than a decade. Yes, it was all about them and now the clock's ticking down and Duncan sighs, "We both realize there's a lot of years behind us, and we don't have a lot of years in front of us. We're enjoying this time left, these situations we have here."
Chances to be champions, again.
They find themselves in circumstances that career and life choices left them: Duncan is 34 years old, his knees going and these remade and recast Spurs trying to win one more title in the twilight of his greatness. Shaq is 38 and a pure mercenary-for-hire now. From Phoenix to Cleveland to Boston, he's chasing a fifth ring to surpass Duncan. They're the most fascinating contrast of a generation, two superstars who traveled such parallel professional and personal paths. They crossed once more on Wednesday, and together they would be the backdrop of an NBA Finals the league office wouldn't want again.
Television wants the Lakers-Heat, but the Spurs have the West's best record and the Celtics still have the East's deepest, most complete team. Shaq can still be a factor for the Celtics, but he's an afterthought within a system blessed with so many stars. For the Spurs, how Duncan fits is a far more complex issue. This franchise is centered upon his stature, but everything no longer goes through him. Over a decade ago, Duncan would come into David Robinson's life and start to phase him out. This time, there's no star, young 7-footer, but a bold change of direction out of coach Gregg Popovich to play fast with so much speed and athleticism. In a lot of ways, the Spurs are leaving Duncan in the dust.
"Occasionally, Tim will give that look like, 'Throw me the ball,' but I don't think Pop has spent 15 minutes trying to convince him of the different direction," Buford said. "I don't think Pop has spent much, if any, energy trying to convince Tim to play a different way."
As much as anything, that's a product of Duncan's DNA and character. Deep down, Duncan understands his declining knees and need for reduced minutes make it necessary for Popovich to turn the ball over to Tony Parker(notes), Manu Ginobili(notes) and the rest of these go-go Spurs. Nevertheless, Duncan is a product of the Spurs and he's able to call upon the professionalism and grace of Robinson's twilight.
"It happened with David, and Tim saw how David handled it," said Malik Rose(notes), an old Spurs teammate. "Of course it bothered David, and it probably bothers [Tim] too. But he's going to find a way to do what he does in whatever role he's given."
O'Neal, a military child, spent most of his childhood in San Antonio. He insisted Robinson had dismissed him as a young kid once, but few ever completely believed the veracity of that story. Nevertheless, Shaq turned it into a device to disparage Robinson in the pros. O'Neal manufactured disdain for so many opponents – and still does – but never could muster it for Duncan. "He had too much respect for Tim," Rose said.
In a lot of ways, Duncan had a discipline and staying power that Shaq never did. In so many ways, Duncan and the Spurs were the perfect foils for the early 2000s Lakers dynasty. Duncan stayed with the Spurs to chase that fifth title, and now Shaq comes to the Celtics near the end of his career. Once LeBron James(notes) bailed on the Cavaliers in the playoff series against Boston a year ago, Shaq privately believed coach Mike Brown should've gone through him. He still commands a double team, still imposes a presence, but he couldn't have carried that team – never mind this one now.
"The ego that makes them great makes it hard for them to ever buy into anything but that they're still the most dominant player going," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "You don't want to dash that in a player. But I think it's an easier sell [with Shaq] coming out of the Cleveland and Phoenix seasons. The thing is now, though: He really wants to win."
O'Neal has been terrific with the Celtics, and they'll need him for a title run. For the Spurs, they'll need Duncan even more. For everything that's changed for San Antonio, for all the nights now that Duncan isn't much of a factor, it's all designed to leave him fresher for the playoff grind. Perhaps these younger Spurs will race San Antonio into the playoffs, but they'll still lean on Duncan to get themselves to the finish line.
"He's not going to do all the things he's done in past years … [but] we know what he can do on the floor based on the situation, the score, who's guarding him and what we need," Popovich said. "He always makes pretty damn good decisions."
The best he ever made was never leaving the Spurs, never turning into a vagabond chasing that final title like Shaq. Maybe this time, they won't be fighting to get out of the West. Maybe this time, they'll fight for a championship. Maybe that's the curtain call, the final bow. Tim Duncan had to laugh on Wednesday night.
"All the playoff battles, all the All-Star games, we've been through a lot together," he said. "The two of us, we're as old as time."
And just maybe, come this spring in the winter of these forever careers, it'll be the two of them in the Finals for old times' sake.