SAN ANTONIO – The Western Conference scouts were sitting courtside, watching the San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan take everyone back years with him. This was late in a magnificent performance – the nostalgia pouring out of every spectacular, simple move – when everyone else was dragging, and here the old man had come tearing down the floor on a dead sprint.
"He looks 25 again," one of the scouts marveled, and it was something to behold in the AT&T Center. Duncan had been his old, devastating self for the Spurs, punctuating a 108-92 Game 1 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers with an array of moves and machinations delivered out of his playoff archives.
He's 36 years old, and mid-May in these NBA playoffs should belong to someone else now. The rest of the league kept chasing the formation of super teams, and still coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford believed there was a way to surround Duncan with proper pieces and make the Spurs championship contenders again. This is an old band, bringing on new instruments, new voices, and the sound is still so authentic.
Fifteen straight victories for the Spurs now, and Tuesday night felt like something out of the time capsule, out of the glory years that refuse to fade. Duncan was Duncan again – 26 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks, two assists and two steals. After all these years, he was the best player on the floor here. After all these years, there's life in those legs, and still a steely resolve in those eyes.
"Highly intelligent basketball players," Duncan said. "Guys who really know how to play the game."
In so many ways, he's embraced the way that his supporting cast has made contention possible for the Spurs. Tony Parker has been spectacular and Manu Ginobili his magnificent self, but Duncan has found thirtysomething peers Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw to be perfect complements of toughness and skill, respectively.
There had been a moment Tuesday night when Kawhi Leonard, the terrific rookie forward, had made one of those long fast-break passes that never end well in the fourth quarter. The ball carried Danny Green out of bounds and cost the Spurs a possession. They love Leonard, an athletic marvel, and the way he fills box scores with his offense, the way he defends so doggedly. Yet, the ball had sailed too far, and Popovich had screamed, and teammates had barked, and right there on the floor, Leonard seemed to want to debate his teammates on the merit of the pass.
Popovich called a timeout, and Duncan planted his hands into Leonard's chest, and pushed him all the way to the huddle, all the way with some gentle words of wisdom. Rest has rejuvenated Duncan's legs this year, but so has a relentlessness to offseason conditioning, a determination that he could still be the centerpiece for a fifth championship.
"Maybe he's not as good as he was a few years back," said Diaw, an old Phoenix Suns playoff foe. "Maybe he's not as fast or doesn't jump as high, but he's still learning things and he's still a perfectionist."
David Stern never did love the Spurs, and sent a superstar, Chris Paul, to the Clippers who could help speed up the demise of this dynasty. Yet, the Spurs are still threatening to haunt the NBA commissioner's television ratings for old times' sake, a throwback championship contender for a different time, a different NBA. At halftime on Tuesday, Paul was scoreless for the Clippers, and his running mate, Blake Griffin, was forced to beat the Spurs on the perimeter, which was never happening because being the proprietor of Lob City is a long, long way from developing an all-around game that made Duncan the greatest power forward in NBA history.
Fifteen straight victories and the NBA's newest super team may not be so new after all. The Spurs will ultimately end up in the Western Conference finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a clash of generations and speeds, and you have to believe that the Spurs' ability to execute gives them more than a puncher's chance.
For now, the Spurs aren't done with the Clippers. And when Game 1 was over, this was a most familiar scene in the locker room: Around the corner Duncan had walked in, and the blast of camera lights made him flinch, rub his eyes and grumble. They were going to get six or seven questions out of him, so make them good, because he has always been far more interested with playing basketball than talking about it.
These were old times for San Antonio and Duncan, but the legs were something else on Tuesday night. They were alive, and so were the Spurs' championship chances. Tim Duncan delivered a performance out of the archives, out his wildest lockout imagination, and these Spurs are coming again and they're coming hard.
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