The contrasting styles of the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs could be seen in splendid microcosm by watching LeBron James churn and Tim Duncan pirouette in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
There was James devouring air and stuffing the ball into the basket’s maw.
There was Duncan wheeling around Chris Bosh for the lefty hook, his feet in perfect position, his arm arched with protractor precision.
On Thursday, Duncan’s steady march through four quarters set the stage for Tony Parker’s concluding burst and a 92-88 victory that at least temporarily snatched home court advantage from the Heat.
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It was The Big Fundamental versus King James.
It was Duncan, leading the multi-champ Big 3 versus the aspiring multi-champ Big 3.
In the first game of best-of-seven, San Antonio proved the calmer and tougher team at crunch time. The Heat took a 72-69 lead into the fourth quarter but Parker’s daring lane forays and off-balance jumpers amounted to 10 points that made all the difference.
James was defending Parker when the slippery point guard sank the winning, defining shot of the game after dribbling through and around the Heat like a Harlem Globetrotter. In theory, it was an advantageous matchup for Miami, but Parker -- after falling down and popping upright -- feinted, then eluded James’ outstretched hand.
“Tony did everything wrong and everything right in the same possession,” James said. “That was the longest 24 seconds I’ve ever been a part of.”
In the middle, Duncan kept the Heat at bay, an imperturbable sentry. As the Spurs reeled in the Heat, Duncan was always in the right place at the right time, with an offensive rebound and tip-in for a four-point edge, another rebound that enabled Danny Green to make a three-pointer for a seven-point edge, then drawing a foul on Bosh and sinking two free throws with a minute left.
Duncan’s labor yielded 20 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and three blocks.
James’ six fourth-quarter points weren’t enough. He was everywhere in the scramble, but unlike Duncan not quite in the opportune spots. The Spurs, particularly Kawhi Leonard, denied him the operating space to take over the game. He had the faster start but Duncan had the better finish. James’ triple double included 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists.
“We had five turnovers in the fourth,” James said. “We can’t allow that. We played some really good basketball but in fourth quarter we made some mental mistakes. Every time you make a mistake the San Antonio Spurs are going to capitalize.”
Duncan is a man of quiet success. The same can be said for his underappreciated team, simply the most dependable in sports over the past decade and a half. While James looked around for help down the stretch, the Spurs seemed to possess a systematic second sense of their teammates’ spots and corresponding actions.
Duncan has a way of widening his eyes as if he’s just stepped on a rattlesnake. But that’s as animated as he gets, even in the thick of a thriller.
He is always described as bland, as if that is a character flaw.
“We’re here to win,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how we’re categorized. Old veterans, whatever you want to call us. Just great to get the first game under our belts. We made plays down the stretch.”
Duncan, 37, does not get the attention he deserves as a four-time champ, and he’s grateful for that. This is a guy who shuns the red carpet like a hermit.
James, 28, has been The Chosen One since birth. A child star, a teen phenom, a boy king, an international sensation.
Nike constructs ad campaigns centered on James even when he’s despised, as when he mocked “The Decision.”
How many TV commercials have you seen Duncan featured in?
James’ entourage would be Duncan’s idea of a party.
James, who took his talents to South Beach, is a perfect match for the celeb glitz of Miami, where inquiring minds want to know how Flo-Rida had his steak cooked or what color Jimmy Choos Beyonce was wearing.
Duncan cares not to see or be seen. He’s been content to spend his entire pro career in the nation’s 36th largest TV market and his spare time in his native Virgin Islands.
During Duncan’s career, the Spurs have made 16 playoff appearances with a .622 winning percentage and advanced to five Finals. Consistency: He’s only the third NBA player to appear in the Finals in three separate decades.
James is playing in his fourth Finals and has won one crown. No one thinks of him as taking the torch from Duncan because they are so different in style, persona, body type. Below the surface comparisons, though, both are meticulous about refining their games. They are mutual admirers.
Duncan’s touch was definitely off early Thursday on jump shots and he could not get some easy bank-ins to fall. He went 0-for-5 in the first quarter. When he missed, his expression didn’t change but he would slam the ball into his palm. From then on, he was 8-for-14.
Duncan picked up two quick fouls, the first a wrong call for a block of Dwyane Wade which replays showed was a charge. He worked stoically, setting screens that sprung Parker and Manu Ginobili, and adjusting to defenders Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen.
James made just two turnovers against waves of double-teams.
Opposites attract. San Antonio built a champion. Miami bought one. They meet again Sunday.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra called the series “great theater.”
“You have a lot of not only compelling team matchups but individual matchups,” he said. “There’s a small margin of error both ways. We just have to make sure we’re doing better all the way through to the last hundredth of a second.”