The old man rescues lethargic Spurs with historic performance


SAN ANTONIO — Tim Duncan’s early season struggles drew plenty of criticism over the first month, but it’s probably time to put all that noise to bed — especially after he put his name alone on yet another page of the NBA record books.

On Monday against the Atlanta Hawks, the Big Fundamental became the oldest player in league history to record 20+ points and 20+ rebounds in a single game with his 23-point, 21-rebound performance. Oh, and he tacked on a game-winner for good measure.

Duncan took a sleepwalking Spurs team and put it on his back in a 102-100 win against old friend Mike Budenholzer, and he gave him something to remember for his trip back home. The pin-down screen has been one of this team’s pet plays over the last couple of years, and on a night when Timmy was in a zone, there was little doubt who was getting the ball.

TIMMEH SWAG TIME Courtesy of SB Nation.

Sloppy play and turnovers dominated the scene for San Antonio, but the future Hall-of-Famer saved the day at the end of what was by far his best game of the season. The Spurs committed 19 turnovers and survived two late threes from Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague to hang on for their 15th win against a scrappy-as-hell Hawks team.

“It was another great play call by (Gregg Popovich),” Duncan said. “(Marco) Belinelli set a really good screen that created some distance, and I just fired and hoped for the best.”

And too often over the first ten games of the season, a Duncan mid-range jumper was more of a prayer than a hope. After a long slump during which he spent most of his time shooting worse than 40 percent, the big man appears to have found his range. He’s connecting at a clip of 54.5 percent over the last seven games, and he’s gone 15-for-30 during that stretch from mid-range, where he was miserable to start the season. (Duncan said after the game he’d been dealing with some health issues to start the season, though he didn’t clarify what the issue(s) had been.)

As for the play call at the end of the game, it’s kind of amazing it actually worked considering the trends throughout the game. Nineteen turnovers is never an acceptable number, but perhaps there was a better excuse for all of them considering the circumstances of this game.

With Pop on one bench and Bud on the other, both sides apparently knew exactly what was coming on either side of the court. Tiago Splitter said after the game that each side was regularly calling out the other’s plays like it was a practice.

“Some moments, we stopped doing our stuff, trying to do random pick and rolls,” he said. “Because they already know what we’re going to do.”

But it wasn’t working, and the Spurs looked like they were running in mud. Without their usual offensive fluidity, the game was in slow-motion for the usually whirring San Antonio attack. And once again, San Antonio got its rhythm back with that crafty bench unit at the helm.

Marco Belinelli, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw — who returned with the two middle fingers on his left hand taped together after suffering a dislocation on Saturday — provided their usual spark as the three primary components of the wonderfully nicknamed ‘Foreign Legion.’ Belinelli continued his torrid start with a 6-for-9 effort from the field, Diaw went seven of his nine shots and seemed as if nothing was wrong, and Manu continued doing damage as a facilitator during what has been one of his best seasons in that capacity.

And they’ve been quite important considering the struggles of the team’s starting wings. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green combined to go 3-of-14 from the floor and hit just one three on seven attempts between them. It has been an issue for this group, but it’s one they can afford to deal with given the fact that they’re now 15-3 on the season. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the reserves are playing this well.

This is something we’ll get into in the coming days, so I’m not going to blow up the issue in this recap.

San Antonio’s bench outscored Atlanta’s 46-21, a trend that’s become one of the biggest stories of the year. But for the umpteenth time during his long career, Monday night was all about Duncan. Nothing was working, the offense couldn’t find any room to run through the motions and the other team was calling out every play the Spurs ran. So when it came down to it, they just had to go to what they knew best.

They gave the ball to Timmy — a plan that’s worked for 17 years. The Hawks knew what was coming, but it just didn’t matter.