By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
SAN ANTONIO – After his game-high 27 points foiled an otherwise expertly executed defensive scheme by the Dallas Mavericks that shut down San Antonio’s sharpshooters, Tim Duncan didn’t sound much like a cowboy in his final rodeo as some postseason narratives have suggested.
“I’m always excited around this time,” Duncan said, a 90-85 victory Sunday afternoon marking the start of his 13th consecutive playoffs. “Even now, I might be more excited because I know there are only a couple more left in my career, and I’m excited and I’m going to take the opportunity and really remember it.”
A couple? At least two more? Maybe three?
Duncan, who turns 38 on Friday, ran his hand through his hair, smiled, but wouldn’t bite at the followup inquiry.
“I don’t know what that number is,” Duncan said. “I’m worried about one right now.”
In Game 1 against his old rival Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs, Duncan pulled the Spurs through in a game that Dallas did nearly everything right to seal an upset, everything but keep Duncan at bay. The old warrior scored 17 points in the second half, nine in the fourth quarter and five points during the Spurs’ decisive 15-0 run that flipped an 81-71 Mavs lead with 7:45 left in the game into an 86-81 Spurs lead with 2:17 to go.
The Mavs’ perimeter pressure induced a 3-for-17 Spurs effort from beyond the arc. Manu Ginobili made all three. Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills combined to miss all 11 of the 3s they shot.
Just 10 days ago in Dallas, Mills hit six by himself to give the Spurs their ninth consecutive victory over the Mavs. Sunday made it 10 in a row.
“We got killed on 3s in the first four outings this year, so I guess it was no secret, we stayed a little bit more at home on the 3-point shooters,” a dejected Nowitzki said. “I mean you’ve got to give them something and Duncan down there is still solid.
“I guess two points is better than three.”
Said Duncan: “We took what they gave us. They took us off the 3-point line and made our shooters into drivers. They were helping, switching and rotating a lot. We continued to move the ball and the guys around the rim were the ones that were open.”
Nowitzki, 35, doesn’t have the luxury of playing with such a devastating crew around him. Where the Mavs were content to switch coverages that enabled Duncan to operate more freely in exchange for crowding the 3-point arc, the Spurs’ entire defensive scheme was focused on the 10th leading scorer in NBA history.
“They’re living with Monta [Ellis] and Devin [Harris] shooting, that’s clear,” said Nowitzki, who had just 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting and was 2-for-6 in the fourth quarter. “They went under every pick-and-roll. Devin finally made a couple, he hit two 3s, he made a pull-up behind the screen. So those two guys, they’re going to step into shots and make most of them, hopefully. But Devin was really the only guy that was making something happen for us.”
Harris had 19 points, but Ellis was mostly a no-show with just 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting.
Meanwhile, Duncan received dump pass after dump pass for easy buckets off the glass, and when they didn’t come easily he twice made off-balance, circus shots made possible by his still remarkable agility.
“He stole it from me,” Parker joked. “He was great. It was vintage Timmy. He was very aggressive, demanding the ball and he played great, so we are going to need him to play like that if we are going to go far in the playoffs.”
It didn’t come without a brief scare not unlike that recent night in Dallas when he hyperextended his knee and left the game only to quickly return. This time Duncan, already wearing a bulky brace on his left knee bumped knees with Ellis and limped off the floor. After going straight to the bench, he then headed to the locker room.
He missed some six minutes of game action and Dallas extended its lead. Duncan returned with 9:26 to go and immediately drained a short jumper.
“We’ve got to make him work for shots and keep him off the free-throw line,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s one of the top 10 greatest along with Nowitzki, so he’s going to score some points, but we’ve got to evaluate our game plan, adjust it where we need to adjust it and we’ve got to come back out here Wednesday guns blazing again because that’s what it’s going to take to win in here.”
As far as the incessant speculation that is really going to be it for Duncan, the bigger question than will he or won’t he, is why would he?
“I hope he stays as long as I’m here,” Green said. “But you never know, he’s been doing this for a really long time since I was a kid. I watched him play when I was in middle school, high school. It’s amazing for him to keep doing it the way he’s been doing it.”