For 16 years, Tim Duncan has been the rock the San Antonio Spurs have built their foundations upon. The landscape around the organization has changed drastically in that time, with longtime rivals falling into cycles of decay and rebirth while new landmarks emerge and whither.
But Duncan and the Spurs have persisted, their consecutive 50-win seasons remaining a fixed point of success for other teams to reference, like the North Star in the night sky.
The face of the franchise hasn’t changed much over the years. Duncan’s stoic façade, once famous for expressing nothing, now reveals the slightest lines of age. Not even Mount Rushmore is immune to the weathering effects of time.
Tony Parker was the story in the Spurs Game 1 victory, and his scoring and playmaking exploits figure to command the spotlight. He is the engine that drives the Spurs offense. Manu Ginobili still introduces a bit of chaos and magic into the proceedings, and Kawhi Leonard provides the lively legs and athleticism. But it’s still Duncan that legitimizes everything the Spurs do.
“Timmy, he’s not going to score 24 a game or anything like that,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “But he’s still the base from which everything else occurs, whether he’s scoring or not. It just gives us a comfort level and a point from which to operate. He plays defense, rebounds, and scores here and there. He just does his job.”
His 12-point, 11-rebound, 2-block performance from Game 1 doesn’t necessarily leap from the box score until you consider that it was his 152nd postseason double-double (trailing only Magic Johnson’s 157), or that he produced those numbers in just 24 minutes.
Fifteen years after battling Rasheed Wallace to get past the Portland Trail Blazers on the way to his first championship, Duncan finds himself playing against the calmer, reincarnated version of Wallace. But while LaMarcus Aldridge brings those same turnaround jumpers—right down to the high release points—back to life on the court, the days of Duncan dominating from the low post have faded to ghostly apparitions.
Aldridge remembers those days well, having admired them as a youth before being haunted by them as an adult. The Trail Blazer’s power forward recalls his first years in the league, being left on an island against Duncan on the low block, being completely enveloped by a tsunami of post moves.
“He gave it to me in the post when I first got drafted,” Aldridge said after the Trail Blazers last practice before Game 1. “I had nightmares of how he scored over and over again and I couldn’t stop him.”
The vast array of post moves and counters are no longer readily at his disposal and his fast twitch muscles no longer fire on command, having been worn through years of battle. But they still retain their muscle memory, and Duncan draws upon that to stay a step ahead of everyone else.
Dropping weight has hampered Duncan’s ability to hold position on offense some, a necessary sacrifice to Father Time for a few more years of cooperation from his deteriorating knees. But Duncan still glues the offense together, opening up both sides of the floor via quick ball reversals from his perch at the elbows, freeing Parker or Ginobili up with screens, and ducking in for easy layups and an occasional post opportunity.
At this point in his career, Duncan’s main offensive weapons are his length, basketball IQ, and a midrange jumper subject to regression at any time. But it’s enough to keep Duncan atop the list of elite players, if just in a more limited time and in a vastly different way.
Duncan may no longer be the metaphorical tidal force generating the Spurs’ offense, but he expertly navigates its waves. And he’s still the anchor of an elite defense.
Tiago Splitter will deservedly get credit for harassing Aldridge in Game 1, and Leonard’s four steals helped fuel the Spurs’ transition game, but the systematic dismantling of the Blazers’ offense (37.8 percent from the field, no made three-pointers until the fourth quarter) is a product of the Spurs’ defense-on-a-string execution, and it’s Duncan—directing rotations via verbal commands and sliding over to deter dribble penetration—that’s pulling the wires.
For the season, the Trail Blazers have made a living by spacing the floor and using Aldridge and Lillard to bend defenses to free their three-point shooters, but Portland failed to make a single three-pointer until the fourth quarter in Game 1, due in no small part to Duncan’s ability to shut down the restricted area.
Duncan no longer has the ability to be everywhere on the court on a defensive possession, but his presence still looms large and opponents are shooting just 36.6 percent at the rim (via NBA stats) on shots Duncan defends during the playoffs. On any given possession one can see Duncan reading the offense, processing all the variables, assessing threats, and reacting with economical rotations that force opponents into their second and third options.
Through persistence and reinvention, it almost seems like Duncan could go on forever like this. In reality, he won’t be around for the next LaMarcus Aldridge as he was for the next Rasheed Wallace, but that doesn’t mean his impact won’t linger long after.
“He’s the best power forward of all-time in my eyes,” Aldridge said. “I’ve learned so much watching Tim and just playing against him.”
In a few years, Aldridge can go back to admiring Duncan’s game from a distance. For a few more games, Duncan has the opportunity to reintroduce Aldridge to some of his nightmares. Only time will tell if the Spurs can outlive another upstart team, but then, time has always been on Tim Duncan’s side.