Tim Duncan would like to remind you he still exists
Now in his 14th season at the age of 35, the nights of brilliance come fewer and further in between for San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan. Last night’s classic 25-point, seven-rebound performance was almost over before it started.
On the strength of a quick flurry of three-pointers and an 11-point outburst from Kevin Martin in the first quarter, the Houston Rockets had the Spurs reeling early once again. With a little more than five minutes remaining in the quarter, and an 11-point deficit that would eventually swell to 19, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich sent Tiago Splitter in for Tim Duncan.
Given the Spurs recent history, and Popovich’s penchant for pulling the plug early in similar games, it could have just as easily been the last time Duncan saw the court this night. Perhaps sensing this, or the upcoming mandatory vacation Popovich would like to place on Duncan during these four-games-in-five-nights stretches, Duncan left the court angrily—allowing for a rare moment of emotion to contort his face beyond his usual making his eyes bigger routine.
It has, in many ways, been a frustrating season for Duncan, as his two early season technical fouls can attest to. It has been one steeped in reminders of his basketball mortality, with questions about his numbered days at every turn going back to the first day of training camp.
“Wow, after the first practice? I feel good today, does that count for anything,” Duncan replied with a hint of annoyance when asked if he was prepared to retire just moments after his first workout back in training camp.
The season has been a day-to-day experience for Duncan, good some nights, old the next. But the Spurs captain believes there are enough contributions left in his knees to bristle at the thought of retirement.
“I haven’t even gotten to that bridge,” Duncan said. “I don’t even see that bridge yet. When I get there I’ll cross it and see what’s going on.”
Across from Duncan, on the opposing bench, was a former player who has long since seen that bridge and today has trouble crossing anything. Kevin McHale, coach of the Houston Rockets, knows a thing or two about aging post players and the toll it takes on a body. He now walks with a pronounced limp, a daily reminder of the grind of the NBA and his decision to push through a playoff run on a broken foot.
“Timmy’s still effective. He’s looking more to facilitate when he first gets the ball, whereas years ago he was looking to attack a little bit more and score,” McHale said. “But you know, you play different when you get older. If not, Bill Russell would still be winning championships.”
How did McHale change his game as he reached the end of his career?
“Everybody shoots more jumpers because you get tired of getting beaten up,” McHale said. “I see Timmy’s gravitated towards that too.”
[pullquote]“Everybody shoots more jumpers because you get tired of getting beaten up” [/pullquote]
Most nights McHale’s assessment of Duncan would be spot on. Duncan is averaging a career low 2.7 shots at the rim and converting on less than half of them according to Hoopdata.com. Instead he’s taking roughly half his shots from 16-23 feet, where he’s hitting 53 percent of them.
This was reflective of McHale’s pregame assessment of Duncan. And the white board in the visitor’s locker room was even more revealing. Listed as the third key to the game were the words “get Duncan into as many pick and rolls as possible.”
The San Antonio Spurs have taken many pains to mask this decline. Even Duncan’s throwback games this season, like his game-winning performance in New Orleans, has been more the result of a locked in jump shot than a rejuvenated Tim Duncan.
When Duncan went to the bench early in the first quarter, there was little reason to believe he would have a similar night in him. When the Spurs struggled to slow Rockets shooters while failing to make anything themselves, there was little reason to believe they had a chance. But Popovich saw something he didn’t see in other games.
“I thought in the first half our defense was actually pretty solid,” Popovich said. “They made a lot of shots. We made a couple of mistakes, but the combination of them being on fire and us not being able to hit anything–that’s something you have to be able to assess: whether guys are playing poorly, or you’re playing well but things just aren’t going your way.”
But most importantly he saw a physically and emotionally invested Tim Duncan and a rare flashback of youth he dare not waste.
Because of his basketball IQ, Duncan will always be able to take advantage of what a defense gives him so long as he can get up and down the court. Last night, however, was more about what Duncan wanted to take.
For the first time all season the knee brace-clad leg looked less like a burden Duncan had to drag around and more like the foundation from which he leverages defenders and spins off of with. Instead of finding defenders in bad positions, he was putting them there.
To catch a glimpse of Duncan’s physical dominance, one need only look at the box score. Duncan’s 10 free throw attempts were the first time he’s reached double digits in that category since losing to the Phoenix Suns in the 2009-2010 playoffs.
“I was just trying to be aggressive. I was trying to get in the paint as they were staying locked up on our shooters,” Duncan said. “They weren’t double-teaming so I got a chance to attack a little more, get in the paint, and make some shots. I felt good that quarter and just kind of made it work.”
While Duncan has gravitated more towards the perimeter, as McHale suggested, he showed he still has some fight left in those knees. Getting beaten up in the post? Duncan isn’t as tired of this as he is the questions about rest and retirement.
He will do so when he damn well pleases.