Refreshed Duncan continues to captain Spurs defense
AT&T CENTER — While back-to-back 20-point games are garnering most of the attention, for the Spurs the early season spring from Tim Duncan is paying dividends on the defensive end as well. Duncan came into the game with six blocked shots on the season and added another three to his total in a 110-100 win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday night. And he almost extended his 20-point streak to three games (Duncan finished with 19).
More than just what’s seen on the box score, though, are what he’s able to do without chalking up a statistic. So far this early season, the Spurs are able to funnel ball handlers to Duncan for stretches, where his positioning and discipline have altered far more shots than the three blocks per game he’s averaging. Duncan knows where to be far before he needs to be there, which is a blessing for a 36-year-old whose foot speed has diminished (economy of movement is what it’s called). And in part because Duncan was never really a leaper, his timing on blocked shots is excellent and discipline to stay on the floor when opponents pump fake is second-to-none.
All this to say, Duncan is still a great defensive center. Positional controversy aside, when it comes to defense, Duncan is a center. He doesn’t defend power forwards due to the aforementioned physical limitations. Much has been made about the physical condition Duncan entered the season in — and for good reason, go look at a picture of him from his rookie season and marvel at how much he’s slimmed down — and that shape has been a catalyst for his play in this early season.
“It’s just a credit to his professionalism, his character, his understanding of the human body and that there are only so many steps and years you have,” Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich said before the team’s game against the Jazz. “He’s taken the best advantage he possibly can to extend that as long as he can.”
And what he’s done his help the Spurs defense get off to a fast start. Through three games this season, San Antonio is putting up a 98.3 DefRtg. That puts the Spurs at 13th in the league upon posting of this story, but the numbers are skewed because of the small sample size. Last season a 98.3 DefRtg would’ve put the San Antonio as the fifth-best defense in the league at the end of the year.
The Spurs entered their game against the Jazz with a 94.6 defensive rating, but one third quarter barrage from Mo Williams later, and their defensive numbers jumped a bit. Outside of that quarter against the Jazz and a rocky first period last week when the opened up the season in New Orleans, and you could argue that the Spurs defense has been stellar in this short season.
And that all leads back to Duncan. Well, Duncan and the havoc-wreaking tendencies of Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi could be the defensive leader Coach Pop says he is (“We followed his lead defensively”), but Duncan is the one who pulls the strings on the backline of that defense. And if the Spurs are to continue to slow opposing offenses the way they have been, Duncan needs to avoid the wear-and-tear of a long season as much as possible. The longer Duncan plays in a game, the better chances the Spurs have of winning.
While Coach Pop can do what he can to creatively keep 21’s minutes down this season, Duncan aims to take his fate–and that of the Spurs’ title chances–into his own hands.
“I don’t talk to him about it, I don’t tell him what to do, he does what he does on his own: flexibility, strength, diet, all those things,” Coach Pop said. “He’s just magnificent in that regard.”
Statistics courtesy of NBA.com/Stats.