Twin Towers elevate Spurs

Duncan, Robinson look to go farther than previous tandems

June 02, 1999|By DALLAS MORNING NEWS

SAN ANTONIO -- Building a team around two skyscrapers only seems like a cutting-edge blueprint. Truth is, the hometown Spurs aren't even the first team off I-10 to erect Twin Towers.

Stacking two 7-footers in a five-man lineup actually has become Texas tradition. But you know what?

The Spurs won't care one jot about originality if they follow the Houston Rockets' up-the-freeway example straight into the NBA Finals.

In 1986, centered around Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, the Rockets grounded the Los Angeles Lakers' annual trip to the championship round and extended the favored Boston Celtics to six games in the Finals. Thirteen springs later, carried by the far-reaching wingspans of Tim Duncan and David Robinson, the Spurs appear poised to advance past the conference finals for the first time in franchise history.

"You'd have to say, judging by how well they've played so far, that they look like they're going to get there," offered longtime NBA coach Bill Fitch.

That assessment was made before the Spurs seized a 2-0 lead over Portland in the Western Conference finals, and if anyone understands Twin Tower dynamics, it's Fitch. Fitch, 65, was the Rockets' X-and-O man in 1985-86 when Olajuwon, at an even 7 feet, was paired with the 7-4 Sampson. And it was Fitch who helped bring Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to the Celtics, winning a title with them in 1980 -- along with a guy named Larry Bird -- before this Twin Towers thing carried a catchy nickname.

Fitch also knows as well as anyone that most basketball experts think the two-center ap proach can't work. He's still struggling to convince skeptics that the Olajuwon-Sampson tag team had much more potential than the sizable flops before them: New York's Patrick Ewing and Bill Cartwright, the Knicks' Willis Reed and Walt Bellamy, San Francisco's Wilt Chamberlain and Nate Thurmond.

Maybe that's why Fitch can be found at his home in the Houston suburb of Conroe, savoring small-screen images of the 7-foot Duncan and 7-1 Robinson in concert as much as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich does from the Alamodome sideline.

Fitch always felt his Twin Towers could have been NBA champions because they were the first tandem of centers that could also play forward -- at least until Sampson's unyielding string of injuries wrecked the idea.

Now Fitch is seeing it all over again. Duncan dominating low offensively and defending folks inside and outside like a vintage Olajuwon. Robinson, however hobbled by persistent knee and back pain, running the floor and shooting face-up jumpers even better than a healthy Sampson could -- and anchoring everything at the defensive end.

Coaching lifers like Fitch are mesmerized by such unique, selfless stuff. So are awestruck teammates.

"We'll go as far as Tim and Dave take us," said Spurs reserve center Will Perdue. "The two together are greater than Jordan."

As in Michael Jordan?

Perdue, folks, isn't kidding. And, sacrilegious as the statement sounds, at least he has some authority to make the claim. Perdue won three championships as a Jordan sidekick in the early 1990s before leaving Chicago for San Antonio. At decade's end, the Spurs' third 7-footer has another title shot, largely because of the two big men Perdue backs up.

First, of course, the Spurs must finish off the Blazers, but it's tough to find an NBA observer who thinks they won't. Duncan and Robinson thoroughly shackled Shaquille O'Neal in a 4-0 sweep of the Lakers in the last round, and they're clicking against the Blazers as well. In a narrow Game 1 victory, each scored 21 points -- just the sixth time in 59 games this season that Duncan and Robinson both reached the 20-point plateau.

"It was limiting at first," Duncan said, "but I think we've found ways to feed off each other, instead of get in each other's way."

That wasn't always the case, as anyone who remembers the Spurs' 6-8 start can attest. Duncan and Robinson were struggling to co-exist in the low post, their teammates were frequently caught standing around, and Popovich was barely clutching to his job.

Only when Robinson began to scale back his game, and Duncan started passing better out of double-teams, did the Twin Towers-never-win talk start to fade.

Robinson's initial reluctance was understandable. Popovich was asking the NBA's 1995 MVP, one of the game's 50 all-time greatest players, to embrace the same defense-heavy role Mavericks coach Don Nelson had outlined for Shawn Bradley.

To the Spurs' relief -- and to "The Admiral's" credit -- Robinson made shot-blocking and rebounding his priorities after the rough start to help the Spurs close the regular season on a 31-5 kick.

When it was over, Duncan had all the MVP numbers (21.4 points and 11.4 rebounds), while Robinson came away with new career-lows in points (15.8), minutes (31.7) and shots per game (10.7). Yet Popovich swears that Robinson "never, ever" complained about the new approach. Not even when rumors swirled about Robinson fading to the point that -- gasp -- he might even be traded to the Trail Blazers for Rasheed Wallace.

"If he was a jerk, if he had no character, if he wasn't smart enough to know it's for the good of the team, I'd have all kinds of problems," Popovich said of Robinson.

Pub Date: 6/02/99

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