Over a career that will travel directly from San Antonio to Springfield, Mass., Tim Duncan has beat them all: Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Jason Kidd and more. But here at age 40, it’s clear he’s waging an ultimately futile battle against some guy with a long gray beard and a hooded robe.
We’re reminded once again that Father Time is unbeatable, and on the heels of him giving Kobe a shove — gently, of course — is Father Time turning his attention to Duncan in these playoffs?
Duncan has struggled in two games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and when you weigh the entirety of the 2016 playoffs, he has been inconsistent at best. He’s 12-for-24 on shots right at the basket, he’s seldom blocking (or altering) shots and doesn’t always find himself on the floor in the moment of truth. Duncan’s role with the Spurs seems more likely a ceremonial one compared to his prime. He’s averaging just 21.6 minutes per game and although he has been a presence on the glass, he’s a secondary offensive option and rarely has plays run for him.
And so, as the Spurs prepare to play two games in OKC in a series that’s tied at one apiece, an important and fair question must be asked: Has Duncan hit the final wall of a career?
At this time a year ago, he was the finest player on a floor that included Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Kawhi Leonard. Duncan was superb in the Spurs’ classic seven-game, first-round series with the Clippers when he averaged 17.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks and served as a mighty closer in several of those games. Once again, the Spurs’ strategy of keeping Duncan in a regular-season deep freeze worked; he was preserved for the playoffs and delivered the energy and production. Over the last three seasons, Duncan’s playoff numbers were higher than his regular season numbers, and this despite the fact the competition got tougher and the games obviously took on a higher meaning.
This season, circumstances have changed things a bit. The Spurs not only signed LaMarcus Aldridge, but Leonard’s role and talent have soared, thus reducing the need for Duncan to play major minutes. In fact, the three principle members of the Spurs’ glorious run of championships — Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — have all seen a reduction in roles and production. This is no longer “their team” as the Spurs have successfully introduced a new nucleus and have hardly suffered for it. Plenty of teams would kill to have this level of bump-free transition, which is a credit to coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs’ organization.
But against a quality team like OKC (and then again against the Golden State Warriors, if the expected Western Conference finals showdown materializes), the Spurs need all hands on deck. Parker is averaging 4.5 points against Russell Westbrook in this series. He was benched for a fourth-quarter stretch in Game 2 that was costly, because his replacement, Patty Mills, shot horribly. Ginobili has been inconsistent off the bench, and his decision to pass out to Mills in the crazy closing seconds of Game 2, rather than shoot a potential game-winning 10-foot floater, was strange.
There’s still time for Parker, Ginobili and even Duncan to put their signature on this series. The most curious case-study will be Duncan. He’s at an age where just being able to play on an NBA level is noble. And aside from a few offensive hiccups, he has been a contributor. But two games into the West semifinals, and really throughout these playoffs, Duncan hasn’t stood out. And this has never happened before in 18 years.
It’s all something that’s hard to imagine or even get used to seeing. Hopefully for the Spurs’ sake, Duncan still has a rewind button that’s still fully functional.