SAN ANTONIO — Tim Duncan doesn’t live in the past, which is not so easy when you’ve got such a glorious history. But Duncan has been blessed with a rare gift. Duncan sees himself as he is.
Michael Jordan didn’t acknowledge Father Time. Kobe Bryant doesn’t seem to, either. Most NBA superstars don’t, at twilight time. They believe themselves to be what they once were.
But Duncan knows better. Knows he’s not the same player now that he was at 21, or 27, or 33. Not the horse who could average 25 points and 12 rebounds a game. Not the stoic franchise player whose consistency earned him the nickname “Groundhog Day.”
Duncan remains a preeminent player on the NBA’s best team in the regular season and what’s looking like the best team in the playoffs, too. But Duncan knows the sun has started to set.
“Obviously I'm not as effective as I used to be, and my legs aren't what they used to be.”
“I can't do everything I used to do.”
“I always show up and assume that the game depends on me. I know it does a lot less in these years and this season.”
Imagine a Jordan or a Kobe or a Shaq saying that. But all those words came from Duncan himself. And yet, Monday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, Duncan scored 27 points as the Spurs routed the Thunder 122-105. Duncan scored 21 in the first half alone, making nine of 12 shots. Only five players in NBA history aged 38 or older have scored at least 27 points in a playoff game.
“It’s incredible,” said longtime teammate Manu Ginobili, no spring chicken himself at age 36. “I’ve never seen him stretch a muscle. I don’t know how he does it. He keeps playing, he keeps scoring, with the same face, doing the same thing. So effectively and reliably. He’s one of a kind.”
Duncan is one of the 10 best NBA players ever. You just wouldn’t know it by the spotlight. It’s not the San Antonio way. Not Duncan’s way. He just plays. Changes his game and plays. Develops an outside shot now that his post-up moves don’t work so well. Knows all the angles now that he no longer can jump over outmatched foes.
Old Man Riverwalk, as they’ve been calling Duncan for years, made 11 baskets against the Thunder in Game 1. Two were on outside jumpers. Most were out of the flow of a nifty San Antonio offense, on rolls to the basket or lay-ins when the Thunder defense got lost.
Duncan doesn’t really explode too often. He had just two games this season with more than 27 points. Had just four games with more than the 19 shots he took in Game 1.
Duncan said yeah, he was surprised at 21 first-half points, but “I was just kind of taking what was given to me. Going into the half in the 20s, that's crazy.”
What’s crazy is a guy scoring 21 first-half points more than 16 years after scoring 32 points in his NBA playoff debut, a victory over Phoenix, in a game that included Avery Johnson, Vinny Del Negro and Monty Williams, who long ago started their NBA head-coaching careers. A game that included Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. And current Thunder assistant coach Mark Bryant, who is 49. And Hot Rod Williams, who is 51.
How is Duncan still being this productive at age 38? Still averaging 15.1 points and 9.7 rebounds a game, on a 62-win team?
“You’re asking me questions now that are hard to answer,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “I just have to give him credit. It’s kind of like Vince Carter (37) in Dallas. What the hell is Vince doing? I didn’t think Vince would be doing that at his age.
“They take care of themselves in the sense of what they put in their bodies. I know Timmy works out all summer doing a variety of things, swimming, boxing, not necessarily getting on the court and pounding or anything like that, but he stays in good shape as far as the physicality of it and the nutrition part.
“And he's a mentally tough individual who really feels a responsibility to help carry the program. He really loves being at practice, in the locker room, with the guys, and I think he wants to extend that as long as he can, so it's like a mental toughness that he's driven to do that.”
To survive, the Thunder can’t let Duncan have such games. Can’t let the San Antonio offense turn back the clock and make Duncan produce games that would fit in nicely with his monster yesteryear. But with no Serge Ibaka, and with the Spur offense running efficiently, and with Duncan always in the right place, Groundhog Day is always on the table. Living in the present, playing like the past.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.