Duncan continues to answer playoff call

DALLAS – Antonio McDyess(notes) paused outside the locker room late Wednesday and shared a laugh. Yes, he’d seen it all before. Nearly an hour earlier, in the din of an enemy arena, the San Antonio Spurs had stood on the brink of a franchise-changing collapse. They’d lost their momentum and much of their lead, and so they did what they’ve nearly always done in such dire moments: They gave the ball to Tim Duncan(notes).

Tim Duncan scored 25 points to lead the Spurs to a Game 2 victory, and had time to mug for the camera.
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Five possessions, four shots, a season saved.

Duncan’s 34th birthday arrives Sunday, and he’ll celebrate this one like he has so many before it. He’ll have a game to play, another championship to chase. This has stretched for a dozen years, and McDyess was there for the start. He lines up with Duncan now, but stood across from him then, the playoff debut for both. The Spurs put the ball in Duncan’s hands on seven consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter against McDyess’ Phoenix Suns. Duncan scored on each.

“Everyone says he’s older,” McDyess said. “I think he just got wiser.”

Anyone who’d watched Duncan labor through March had reason to wonder whether he still had games like this ahead of him. His left knee ached on some nights more than others, and he’d lost what little lift he once owned.

Privately, the Spurs suggested Duncan needed only time. His struggles, they insisted, had much more to do with the tortuous schedule the team was given than any specific injury. He was tired and worn, but he wasn’t done.

The Spurs also knew this: Duncan always saves his best work for the spring. No one remembers Duncan ever having a poor playoff series, and that’s because he hasn’t. He’s always found a way to impact the game – if not with his scoring, then his rebounding, defense or passing. Slowed by knee problems a year ago in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks, he still averaged a respectable 19.8 points.

“We know when it counts,” Manu Ginobili(notes) said, “we can trust him.”

Wednesday was one of those times. Already down a game to the Mavericks, the Spurs watched a 20-point lead drop to five midway through the final quarter. Duncan followed with four straight baskets: hook shot, 10-foot turnaround, baseline runner, pull-up jumper. The Mavs never recovered.

Duncan finished with 25 points and 17 rebounds to go along with the 27 and eight he had in Game 1. He’s played in 162 playoff games, adding what amounts to another two seasons to his 13-year career, and continues to deliver. All those battles, all those Western Conference blood wars, and he’s still standing.

“He’s always the guy that gets taken for granted,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

Through all these years, Duncan has remained the Spurs’ rock, the foundation upon which they built four championship teams. After the Spurs were dismissed in the first round a year ago, the franchise’s chairman, Peter Holt, signed off on a $10 million luxury-tax bill to upgrade the roster. Among the biggest reasons he did: The Spurs owed it to Duncan. During an interview last season, Duncan told Hall of Fame center Bill Russell he wasn’t satisfied with four titles. Duncan’s sincerity resonated with Holt. If he wanted another run at a championship, the Spurs pledged to prop open their window to do so.

Duncan, too, has done his part. Two years ago, he signed a contract extension that will cut his pay by $2.5 million for next season. He agreed to the deal because it would give the Spurs greater flexibility to shape their roster, and it already has: The raise Ginobili gets next season as part of his new extension will be swallowed by the savings the Spurs receive on Duncan’s contract.

Tim Duncan, getting assistance from Keith Bogans, has literally picked his game up since struggling in March.
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

At times, Duncan has had reason to question the return on his investment, even as recently as last weekend. The Spurs traded for Richard Jefferson(notes) last summer to improve their championship odds, then watched him produce four points in his first playoff game with them.

“We had a lot of guys who played like dogs,” Popovich declared after the loss.

When someone relayed Popovich’s comments, Duncan laughed and said: “ ‘Soft,’  is usually his favorite motivational tactic.”

Duncan’s gentle personality has long provided the perfect complement to Popovich’s sideline fire. Popovich spares no victims. If Duncan has to weather his share of criticism, then how can anyone else complain?

So Popovich unleashed his K9 Club in Game 2 and Jefferson went for 19 points – all but two coming in the first half, when the Spurs built their large lead. Not since Game 7 of their 2008 second-round series against the New Orleans Hornets have the Spurs enjoyed such an important victory. Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker(notes) all performed like stars for the second straight game, and this time San Antonio received enough contributions from its role players. It was enough to assure the Spurs they’re capable of winning the series.

“I think we have a team that’s built for the playoffs,” Duncan said, though he might as well have been speaking about himself.

As much as anyone, Duncan settles into a rhythm in the postseason, which spares him the grind of back-to-back games. He’s at the age where any day off is a good day. Popovich’s decision to hold Duncan out of the season finale afforded him five days to rest before the playoffs. He received another two days before Game 2.

“I’m feeling a lot better and I’m re-energized,” Duncan said.

That’s why it was imperative for the Spurs to win one of these first two games. The series now shifts to an every-other-day format, which should favor the deeper Mavs. The Spurs can’t ignore that reality, nor do they pretend Duncan is the same force he was seven seasons ago, especially defensively. Last year’s knee problems spurred him to lose 15 pounds during the summer, and no longer does he command a double team as often as he once did. Scoring over Brendan Haywood(notes) and Erick Dampier(notes) is not the same as going through Gasol and Andrew Bynum(notes).

But this, too, is also true: “He’ll never lose his skill set,” Dirk Nowitzki(notes) said.

Come Sunday, Duncan will have another birthday to celebrate, another game to play. And if the Spurs’ season needs saving again? Yes, Tim Duncan is both older and wiser. But no one should think he’s done.

Johnny Ludden is the NBA editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Johnny a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Apr 22, 2010