By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
SAN ANTONIO — Gregg Popovich knows how it will end for Tim Duncan.
“One of these days, it will be like the middle of the third quarter or something like that, and I’ll see him walking toward the exit,” said the Spurs coach. “It will be like it just hit him, like, ‘I’m done.’ As soon as he does that, I’ll be 10 steps behind. Because I’m not stupid.”
Popovich is also not in a hurry, because Duncan is not heading for the exit ramp just yet. Not when he can walk through the door in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals and look, at times, like the best player on the court.
Rolling to the basket to take feeds from Tony Parker that could be converted into easy buckets, catching in the clear and burying 18-foot jumpers, working his way around all the other wide bodies to consistently make plays that would be impressive if they came from a player a decade younger.
The Spurs went repeatedly and effectively to Duncan for play after play and score after score throughout their 122-105 win for the same reason the man climbs the proverbial mountain: because it was there.
“I felt good,” Duncan said the day after he led the Spurs with 27 points. “Honestly, I was basically feeding off what my teammates were setting up for me. The game, in that respect, came easy in that part. I was playing off the game plan and getting to the spots I needed to get to and lucky enough to make some shots.”
It is, of course, more than lucky when the results have been the same and at such a high level for 17 NBA seasons, when there are times when it hardly seems possible that Duncan entered the league in the previous millennium.
Duncan is certainly not the first player of his advanced playing age to fill up the hoop. Michael Jordan once scored 51 points as a 38-year-old. In the last five games of the 1985 NBA Finals, 38-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 30, 26, 21, 36 and 29 in leading the Lakers to the championship over Boston. Abdul-Jabbar went on to play four more seasons before finally retiring at 42.
While it is hard to imagine the earthbound Duncan, effectively playing on one good leg, still going to battle against the likes of lottery prizes Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid in 2018, it is just as difficult to envision the Spurs one day without him.
After all these years, what does it take to still have the focus to take on so much responsibility?
“I don’t assume anything, but I always show up and assume the game depends on me,” Duncan said. “I know it does a lot less in these years and this season. But I still show up and I feel responsible for what happens out there so I try to play as well as I can.”
For all the talk about the Spurs’ Big Three, he is always has been the sun in the center of their solar system. David Robinson saw that right away and accommodated him just as Manu Ginobili and Parker understand that now.
“When you see one of your main guys starting so well and scoring 20 in a half against a team that we always struggle to score against, really, it helps everything go smoother,” Ginobili said.
“When he plays like that, everybody feels confident,” said Parker. “Timmy makes things easier.”
Because there are never histrionics, because his expression rarely changes, sometimes Duncan makes it look too easy for his reputation.
“That’s just his personality,” Popovich said. “I don’t know what to tell you. Some guys are a little more high key. Sometimes people don’t understand how competitive he is. They see his demeanor, and I’m not sure people understand how hard he competes. He wants to win, very very much. He doesn’t show it in an outward manner, like other people do. He internalizes. That’s fine. It kind of suits our style a little bit better.”
If the Thunder continue to come up on Parker in the pick-and-roll, Duncan will take advantage of Serge Ibaka’s absence and the open shots and continue to pile up the points. If OKC changes the defensive approach, he’ll move the ball, find the open man, take what comes.
Just because Popovich monitors his minutes so closely during the regular season and watches over him as if he’s delicate antique porcelain doesn’t mean Duncan can’t still be dominant. In Game 7 of The Finals last June, when the Spurs where desperately trying to get back the all-but-clinched title that slipped through their grasp as he watched from the bench in the last 28 seconds of Game 6, Duncan played 44 1/2 minutes and scored 30 points. He is hardly a relic, but a force that Miami or Indiana — and right now OKC — must deal with.
Yes, he averaged a career-low 15.1 points, but also played just 29.2 minutes per game this season. Until now when the stakes and the playing time rise.
“I’m still here doing it,” Duncan said. “Obviously, I’m not as effective as I used to be and my legs aren’t what they used to be. But I’m finding different ways of doing things and adjusted my game and just happy to be out there and I feel healthy when I’m out there, so that’s good.”
We can all keep asking how Duncan does it? For the Thunder, it’s a much more urgent question.