LOS ANGELES — Gregg Popovich still maintains that as soon as Tim Duncan decides to walk away he’ll be right behind him and happily disappear into the San Antonio sunset.
The good news for Spurs fans who have grown up or grown old with the most successful coach-player duo in NBA history, now in their 16th season together, is they aren’t going anywhere soon.
“He plays like he’s six or seven or eight years younger than he is,” Popovich said. “He’s really just a miracle in my mind.”
That’s what some thought it would take just a few seasons ago for the Spurs with an aging Big Three of Duncan, 37, Tony Parker, 30, and Manu Ginobili, 35, to again be title contenders. They were swept out of the second round by Phoenix in 2010 and then unceremoniously ushered out the next season as the top seed in a first-round upset against Memphis.
Parker openly pondered the direction of the franchise at that point just as rumors persisted that he could be traded. He questioned if the team’s age and makeup could still allow it to compete in a Western Conference transitioning to younger, faster and more athletic, headed by two rising stars in Oklahoma City.
Duncan didn’t need to hear concern from Parker to know that the times were changing, and he needed to change with them.
After averaging just 12.7 points in that 2011 first-round loss, Duncan immersed himself in self-evaluation, analyzing everything from where he’s most effective on the floor, to his conditioning, to his weight and nutrition.
He said the lockout, while it hindered many players’ workout routines and stunted their seasons, actually worked in his favor: “Just having that extra time to really focus on getting my game back and getting my body in the right shape that I wanted it to be.
“I changed a lot,” Duncan said following Sunday’s completion of a first-round sweep of a frustrated Dwight Howard and the depleted Los Angeles Lakers. “I understand that my game was changing, trying to extend my game on the floor, understanding where I’m going to be getting my shots, understand that I needed to get some weight off my body so that I could take some of the pressure off my knee. And it worked well for me.”
This season Duncan produced his highest scoring average (17.8), field-goal percentage (50.2), rebounding average (9.9) and minutes (30.1) in three seasons. His 2.7 blocks per game were a career-best, as was his 81.7 percent free throw shoooting, a remarkable leap for a career 69.3-percent foul shooter.
Against L.A. he delivered an array of post moves, spins, jumpers and one mighty alley-oop jam that caught his teammates by surprise.
“I thought he was going to be done after that play,” Parker said, smiling. “His back or something like that would give out on him.”
And so here are the Spurs once again, following up on last season’s run to the West finals, a six-game loss in what always seems to be Duncan’s last, best shot at a fifth title. They’ll be well-rested and favored in the second round against either a young and energetic Golden State squad or a Denver team that will have gone the distance to dig out of a 3-1 hole.
With the top-seeded Thunder wounded, the second-seeded Spurs must now be considered the favorite to emerge from the West.
“We’re getting there,” Duncan said after averaging 17.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and shooting 51.7 percent from the floor against the Lakers. “Obviously this series went well for us. We didn’t end the year well, but the bottom line is it really doesn’t matter how you end the year. This is a good start for us. We like the pace we’re at now, we like the rhythm we’re at now, we like how healthy we are right now and hopefully we can stay that way.”
Only a few weeks ago Duncan and Popovich expressed concern about its own health after a loss at OKC. Old questions of age and durability were cropping up again as Ginobili sat out hurt. Parker was dealing with multiple ailments and had to be removed from that game and faced an uncertain return. Boris Diaw needed back surgery. The team surprisingly released Stephen Jackson.
Yet, there was Duncan, spry and free of physical distress, averaging more minutes this season when Popovich’s desire over the last several has been to limit him more, an All-Star again for the 14th time.
“He’s a really gifted individual as far as his mental capacity is concerned,” Popovich said. “He really has a mature outlook in the sense that he knows what it takes to play at that age. He enjoys the responsibility and takes it seriously 12 months a year and that’s why he’s able to do what he does at this point in his career. His maturity level and commitment are both very unique.”
As Duncan altered his approach the last two seasons, becoming leaner and quicker, especially evident in his defense and 9.9 rebounds a game, his best mark in three seasons, Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford went about reconstructing the team.
The stodgy defensive model complemented by a methodical offense that ran through Duncan was ditched. Young sharpshooters and scrappy, unheralded role players were acquired to form a precision-based, team-oriented and highly efficient offensive attack that surged to became one of the highest-scoring in the league.
Additions like second-year forward Kawhi Leonard helped improve a faltering defense, making San Antonio an all-around threat to run through the West and arguably the best equipped to challenge the Miami Heat in a seven-game series.
Still, the key remains the ever-present Duncan, even as the Spurs’ strategy altered emphasis on him.
In the opening minutes of Game 3, Duncan set the tone for the two games in L.A. that the Spurs would win by 52 points. A 3.2 earthquake was registered just as Duncan snared an alley-oop pass from Danny Green with his fully outstretched right arm rising well above the rim and then he emphatically dunked it.
“That makes sense now,” the self-deprecating Duncan said when told of the simultaneous earthquake. “It lowered the rim.”
Green instinctively launched the pass to the open man, but then quickly grew concerned as he realized the recipient was an old man with bad knees.
“I threw it and when I saw that it was Tim, I was like hopefully he can catch it and come down with it and make a play,” Green said. “But he caught it and threw that thing down.”
For the Big Fundamental, it was no big thing.
“I used to do it a lot, back in the day,” Duncan said. “Fifteen, 20 years ago.”