San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan talks with head coach Gregg Popovich during a practice for their NBA Finals basketball series against the Miami Heat in San Antonio, Texas June 7, 2014. Photo by Mike Stone, Reuters.
SAN ANTONIO - Although they are pitted against each other in the NBA Finals, LeBron James cannot help but be amazed by San Antonio Spurs ironman Tim Duncan.
"He's one of the greatest to ever play our game," said the Miami Heat's James. "He is still solidifying his legacy at this point, in the sense that he's playing at the one of the highest levels of any guy that's played this long.
"To keep this team and this franchise relevant over 15 years is amazing."
To put Duncan's career into perspective, he won the first of three NBA finals most valuable player awards 15 years ago. And the 38-year-old forward might add another if he continues to shine against the Heat.
The Spurs won the opening game of the finals 110-95 on Thursday and can take a 2-0 lead if they beat Miami on Sunday night at the AT&T Center in San Antonio.
Duncan is as modest as he is hard-working, a combination that has earned the 14-time All-Star near-deity status in San Antonio.
"To see what he does on the floor every single night and year after year people count him out and count this franchise out - because of this whole old epidemic that we have in sports - just lets you know what type of person and what type of player and passion he has for the game," said James.
Duncan scored a team-high 21 points in the series opener on Thursday, hitting nine of 10 shots, while collecting 10 rebounds and three assists. Not a bad day at the office for the former number one overall pick by the Spurs in the 1997 NBA Draft.
San Antonio longtime coach Gregg Popovich said Duncan brings out the best in his team mates by creating "a welcoming environment."
"He allows them to become successful because he's always somebody who is going to be supportive rather than critical," said Popovich, who has coached Duncan to each of his four NBA titles.
"He's a fierce competitor, and he wants to have guys around him that are like-minded. But he really gives them room to flourish."
Having the 6-foot-11(211 cm), 250-pound(113 kg) Duncan around is like having a coach on the floor. "Practice, he's there early and late, even at this age, so it sets quite an example," Popovich said. "Certainly makes my job easier."
James was a high school freshman when Duncan was his first NBA crown.
"It was great when, as a kid, you watch somebody celebrate a championship, you hope that you can put yourself in their shoes - not knowing that I would face him in the finals years later," said James.
"This is my third time facing him, so I think it's pretty cool."
Duncan is unsure when he will call it quits.
"I don't know when I'm going to retire, I don't know what the factors are going to be," he said. "I don't know any of that and I don't care about any of that stuff right now.
"It will happen when it happens. I'll feel it and I'll know it and I'll call it a day."
Popovich has a scenario.
"It will probably be the third quarter of some game on the road some year," the coach said, "and he'll feel like he's not as significant and he'll walk into the locker room."
(Editing by Gene Cherry)