Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

The San Antonio Spurs have swept their way into the Western Conference Finals and managed to remain unbeaten throughout the postseason by winning Game 1 against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In a game often dominated by superstars, the Spurs have taken a different approach: playing as a team. Let’s be clear though, they are not the second coming of the 2004 Detroit Pistons, but instead they are a group with three good and perhaps borderline great players and then a host of average players by NBA standards but that excel in their roles provided they are set up to be successful.

San Antonio does a great job of maximizing the assets they have by putting them in situations to do exactly what it is they do best. For instance, Danny Green’s job is to defend and hit open shots; which he does with good regularity. Gary Neal is asked to essentially make it rain from 3-point range, and more often than not he tends to oblige while Boris Diaw gets a bigger enjoyment out of passing the ball than scoring it; consequently he gets put on the low block or in pick-and-rolls where he attracts defenders and then dishes off for high percentage shots.

That is the Spurs’ way.

And yet, a lot of what they do works because of the greatest power forward the league has ever seen: Tim Duncan.

The Big Fundamental may not be the same player he once was, the one that terrorized big men on the low block and essentially shut down opposing offenses seemingly all by himself, but he’s not that far off either.

In the opener of the Western Conference Finals, Duncan flashed his defensive brilliance by anchoring the paint — they held OKC to 26 points in the paint — and making it extremely difficult for opponents to convert shots at the rim. Indeed, although the Spurs’ defense was geared to essentially seal off the interior and force the Thunder into low percentage midrange shots, it was still important for San Antonio to defend the rim whenever Thunder players got the opportunity to get there.

Whenever Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden attacked the paint in the half court, they were met by a sea of defenders that made it extremely tough for them to get to the rim. And when they finally did get to the basket, Duncan was often there waiting for them to contest their shots and force them to miss. The Wake Forest product has always been an excellent shot blocker; but more importantly he has perfected the art of forcing misses without fouling.

Duncan rarely leaves his feet on defense, which also means that he will occasionally end up on a poster, but for the most part he combines his terrific basketball I.Q. with perfect defensive position to avoid fouls and forcing misses. TD loves to stay in the lane and contest with both hands up without actually trying to swat away his opponent’s shot. But every now and then, he’ll leave his feet and gently knock a shot off is trajectory.

The rest of the team typically takes notes from Duncan who may end up being the most confusing superstar the sport has ever seen.

The old adage is that you cannot win in the NBA with nice guys (this criticism was often directed at one of Duncan’s former teammates; David Robinson). And yet we have Duncan that proves the contrary ever year that he plays, although no one ever mentions it.

Playoff basketball is supposed to be about toughness, wearing out your opponent both physically and mentally by sending out messages with hard fouls and playing head games much in the way that Kevin Garnett does.

Michael Jordan was famous for his trash talking ways as well as his willingness to push, shove and even embarrass his own teammates when he felt the situation called for it. Imagine what he would do to his opponents.

And yet, in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, when Kevin Durant fell to the ground on a play, Tim Duncan was the first player to extend a hand and help him off the ground.

The rest of the team follows his lead and rarely if ever get into confrontations, shoving matches or anything of that nature. Instead, they are more than happy to go about doing their job and helping the team be victorious.

Obviously, Gregg Popovich is the captain of the ship and thus is a big part of the identity of the team, but Duncan is equally important.

As a unit, the Spurs are disciplined and play for each other.

They are a brilliant group at both ends of the court. San Antonio attacks and exposes weaknesses to the point of almost embarrassing their opponents. And Duncan is right at the center of that. If exploiting a mismatch means that the Big Fundamental will simply be relegated to setting screens, making dribble handoffs and rolling hard to the basket for an entire quarter, the three-time Finals MVP is more than happy to do so.

In a trait that is rare amongst NBA superstars, Duncan does not demand the ball on every trip down the court to determine the direction of the offense. Instead, he is willing to defer to his teammates to figure those things out all the while providing them with some direction as they map out the path together.

The Spurs’ big man may end up being the most underappreciated superstar in NBA history given his lack of flash and the lack of juicy storylines revolving around him.

The 2012 postseason has revolved around Derrick Rose’s injury, the Philadelphia 76ers upset of the Chicago Bulls, the elimination and direction of the Los Angeles Lakers, Kevin Durant’s ability to deliver in the clutch, the ascension of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Chris Bosh injury, the LeBron James and Dwyane Wade tag team and the Spurs undefeated record in the postseason. In that order.

San Antonio has been the best team in the playoffs so far and should be raising comparisons to the 2001 Lakers, but instead they barely attract any attention whatsoever.

And in a nutshell, that’s how we treat Tim Duncan.

We all know he is a great and unselfish player, but yet we allow him to fly under the radar.

Consider these facts: The former Demon Deacon has collected as many league MVP trophies as Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett combined, and has surpassed Kobe Bryant’s NBA Finals MVP awards count. One would think that these accolades would warrant some attention be thrown his way, but such is not the case.

Both he and Kevin Garnett may be the last species of a dying breed of big men that could do it all — rebound, defend their man, patrol the paint, score on the block, score from midrange, pass out of double teams, effectively defend the pick-and-roll regardless of the coverage, occasionally defend a smaller player after switching on a screen, contest shots and set the tone — on the basketball court and yet this goes largely unmentioned for the most part.

But the diehards know.

Tim Duncan is one of the 10 best players in NBA history, but his career has largely been overshadowed by the storylines of contemporaries such as Allen Iverson, Steve Nash and LeBron James to name a few. He may not have gotten the publicity, but one thing’s for sure:

Tim Duncan’s been better than all of them…

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