SAN ANTONIO — Of course, Tim Duncan has changed since he entered the NBA 16 years ago.
Older and wiser.
Lighter and faster.
Let’s not say better for a 14-time All-Star with two MVP awards and four championships on his resume, but certainly very effective as he leads the Spurs into The Finals and a quest for a fifth title.
Yes, leads. For while this spring has been a long overdue coming-out party for point guard Tony Parker as perhaps the game’s best point guard, what the Spurs have achieved and how far they’ve climbed wouldn’t have been possible without the transformation of Duncan’s body and his game.
Coach Gregg Popovich calls him the Spurs “psychological foundation,” the one who makes everything possible.
But the fact Duncan can continue doing that at the advanced basketball age of 37 is what has raised eyebrows and dropped jaws. It is not like Duncan simply showed up in the fourth quarter of the clinching Game 6 in the conference semifinals against Golden State and made the plays that made the difference or he came out of nowhere to pull the Spurs’ wagon in overtime of the critical Game 2 win over Memphis in the Western Conference finals.
Playing 30.1 minutes per game in the regular season, most in three years, Duncan averaged 17.3 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocked shots per game, numbers that were good enough to get him voted onto the All-NBA first team. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at 39 in 1986 has been an older selection to the first team and the gap from 1998 to 2013 matches the 15-year span of excellence.
Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Duncan has averaged 17.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks while playing 34.4 minutes.
If the Spurs go on to defeat the Heat in The Finals, Duncan will have won championships in three different decades, an unprecedented feat.
“Timmy amazes me with his discipline on and off the court,” Popovich said. “A lot of people would like to be able to play a sport at that elite level for so many years, but what they don’t realize is the full commitment that it takes. It’s not about just playing games and working in every practice. It’s being mindful of everything that you put into your body. It’s being dedicated to doing all of the necessary things in the offseason so that you can show up perform during the season.”
As the years seemed to take a toll on the Spurs, there were changes that needed to be made. The team had been swept out of the playoffs by Phoenix in 2010, upset as the No. 1 seed by Memphis in the first round of 2011 and then built a 2-0 lead on Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals in 2012 and then was steamrolled by four straight losses.
While the team was making a strategic and stylistic change from a pound-it-inside, low-post offense of his early career to a step-on-the-gas transition attack fueled by Parker, Duncan knew that one of the biggest changes would have to come to himself.
Contrary to an image that has been wrongheadedly perpetuated by those who can’t look deeper than his emotionless expressions on the court, it was his passion for the game, his fiery, intense competitive nature that drove Duncan to remake his body.
“Anybody who doesn’t credit him that way is probably an idiot,” Popovich said.
Duncan spent the past two off-seasons dropping 25 pounds from his previous playing weight of 255 to 260 pounds and now looks positively lean, a loose collection of muscles and tendons.
“The last couple of years, my game has declined and changed,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to let it go. I wanted to play as well as I can, as long as I can.”
While the Spurs have steadily made their offensive shift toward Parker as centerpiece, they have always had Duncan as the main mast of their ship that keeps them sailing forward even while he did an extreme makeover of his body.
“That’s his passion for the game and that passion is part of what makes him such a great leader,” said forward Matt Bonner, who has been Duncan’s teammates since the 2006-07 season. “He sets a great example for everybody. He’s always putting in the work before practice, after practice, in the training room.
“He’s the utmost professional, has that drive, that passion. Considering everything he’s accomplished and considering the credibility he has in everyone else’s eyes in the game, you see that in him and it only makes you want to emulate it.”
On top of all the other challenges that come from aging, Duncan has performed at a steady, elite level all through a season when he knew his marriage was coming apart. It was revealed 10 days ago that his wife Amy has filed for divorce. Yet through it all, the intensely private man never gave even an inclination in public of his pain or his problems. Duncan merely went about delivering the kind of steady, solid performance that the Spurs have perennially expected, always needed to chase those championships and now he’s got them back on the doorstep for the first time since 2007.
“It’s been a long time, and I know what the struggle is,” Duncan said. “I know the luck you have to have, the health you have to have, the team you have to have, all that stuff that has to go into it to make it back here.
“I honestly didn’t know what to expect about these years. My game has changed, and my role is different on this team. It’s kind of reverted a little bit over the last however many games, and I’m being called on a little more.
“I love playing and I’m going to miss it when I’m gone. So I’m enjoying every minute. I know my time is running short here. Every minute I’m on the court — practice, whatever it might be — I’m enjoying being here.”