Chris Kaman could turn a punch line into the final resounding punch of Tim Duncan’s career.
Less than 24 hours after referees did not whistle Derek Fisher for fouling Brent Barry at the end of regulation in Game 4 of the 2008 Western Conference Finals, the Spurs’ guard put the no-call in proper perspective.
He led San Antonio in scoring that night and, by the league’s own admission the next day, should have been awarded two free throws and a chance to tie the game.
The Spurs refused to blame the officials for a two-point loss—the Alamo City’s squad had received many beneficial, in some cases suspicious, judgments before that jobbing—with Barry setting a fine, humorous example for his teammates to follow.
“That’s awesome,” he said of the NBA’s stolid, embarrassing apology, “because Doc Brown is waiting for me outside, and we’re going to get in the DeLorean and fire up the flux capacitor, and we’re going to go back and shoot a couple of free throws.”
Christopher Lloyd’s iconic character from the Back to the Future film franchise never did show up to fly Barry back in time for a pair of foul shots.
Doc Brown, however, was just delaying his trip to the AT&T Center until 2012. Wednesday night, with the Rockets leading the Spurs by 13 at halftime, he came for Duncan.
San Antonio trailed Houston by as many as 19 points in the first 24 minutes, clanging open jumpers and watching helplessly as Kevin Martin and Courtney Lee drilled contested ones.
For good measure, Martin threw in a pair of three-pointers from the dirt parking lot across the street and the Riverwalk.
The Rockets were trying to win a season series with the Spurs for the first time in the Duncan era. A 52-39 advantage at the break qualified as a spectacular start for Kevin McHale’s scrappy bunch.
The Spurs’ franchise player had other ideas.
No. 21 emerged from the locker room as if the Doc’s airborne vehicle had transported him back to 2003. Those who saw the magnificent event might swear Marty McFly was involved.
Duncan posted up Samuel Dalembert and drew contact and dropped close-range buckets until McHale was forced to remove his foul-plagued center. Then, he backed down Jordan Hill and levied the same torture. The third-quarter display of interior dominance recalled the days when trying to stop Duncan was as fruitless an exercise as rubbing two small twigs together to make fire.
The Rockets failed to create any sparks and watched a once imposing lead dwindle to four. The Spurs rallied for a 99-91 victory behind Duncan’s 25-point masterpiece. He tallied 16 of those points in the pivotal third quarter.
Gregg Popovich said two weekends ago he would not let his starting power forward play four times in five nights again.
“It’s not going to happen,” Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News.
The coach used Duncan in games Sunday, Monday and Wednesday, so most expected that he would enforce his new rest regulation when the Spurs hosted the New Orleans Hornets on Thursday night.
The rule, in this case, was meant to be broken.
Maybe that imperious third quarter changed his thinking. Maybe the reality of the Rodeo Road Trip looming next week forced him to relent. Whatever the reason, Popovich allowed Duncan to play—and he domineered once more with 19 and 9.
Doc Brown must own a swell GPS. Or maybe he just loves the AT&T Center.
Both of Duncan’s dunks the previous two nights came off pinpoint feeds. He makes more mistakes on both ends now than ever before. On many occasions since the Dec. 26 season opener, he has performed like a 35-year-old with more mileage than a Ford Taurus from the 1970s.
His superb outings this week reminded of his prime, when he frequently landed entire frontlines in foul trouble. He spun in the lane for several hook shots. He threw in an off balance, two-handed lay-up in traffic.
He looked, at times, like 2003 Timmy, and no one needed to see this more than the front office.
The San Antonio defense—often lambasted and berated by Popovich this year—delivered when it mattered. The Rockets made just six of 16 shots in Wednesday’s third quarter. They finished without a field goal in the final three minutes of the contest.
The Hornets shot 28 percent in a lopsided fourth period that afforded the Spurs a 93-81 win.
When Duncan performs this way, burying this proud franchise in the title talk becomes a difficult proposition.
San Antonio was a defensive sieve in its first batch of road excursions. The team that blew a double-figure lead in Miami and lost in Milwaukee despite shooting 60 percent did not resemble one capable of surviving four postseason rounds.
The verdict arrived before jury deliberations. No fifth title for this group. Not this time. Not this year.
That ruling changes when the continued emergence of Tiago Splitter supplements the return of the old Duncan.
Demolishing New Orleans, the West’s worst squad, should not provoke an excessive celebration. Lots of Hornets opponents, 13 of the last 14 in fact, have triumphed of late.
How the Spurs won, though, makes GM R.C. Buford’s job both easier and more complicated.
Duncan showed what remains in his well-traveled legs. Splitter dissected the Hornets inside for 16 points, connecting on seven of nine shots.
A frontline with the above centerpieces is far from a pushover.
Matt Bonner swished a pair of key fourth-quarter triples on Wednesday and Thursday. DeJuan Blair watched from the bench in the clutch but also had his moments. He played volleyball with Rockets’ forward-center Jordan Hill and snatched away a critical rebound.
Blair and Bonner belong in the NBA but not on the same court. Not at the same time. The Duncan edict, when invoked, leaves Popovich with no other choice.
Pairing an undersized, bulky center with a worker-bee shooter presages disastrous defensive results.
The absence of frontcourt depth has prompted Popovich to keep Duncan or Splitter on the floor at most junctures, so he can use the Blair-Bonner tandem as little as possible.
What if the other 6’11” guy could slap hands with his tall teammate on the court instead of from the pine during timeouts?
Barry’s sarcastic response in 2008 elicited the intended laughter. The next sentence should not inspire any cackles. I wrote all of the above as a preface to the following statement.
The L.A. Times reported Friday that Kenyon Martin had agreed to sign with the L.A. Clippers. It’s time to get serious about the aforementioned Kaman, who continues to stay home while the Hornets shop him.
Do everything possible to come away with a coveted frontline contributor before the stretch run.
Kaman may not fit the prototypical Spur mould, but he might provide enough assistance around the basket to keep Duncan fresh the way Popovich wants.
The coach went beyond careful minutes management and sat Duncan two weeks ago in Houston. Splitter impressed with a career-best 25 points and 10 rebounds, but the Spurs fell 105-102.
Winning without Duncan would prove less cumbersome with four big men instead of three.
Martin built his career on brutish, active post defense. Mark Cuban called him a “punk” in the 2009 playoffs.
While San Antonio’s brass might have hesitated when it came to the forward’s tattooed, petulant repute, it should not allow Kaman’s shortcomings to end that pursuit before it begins.
Can Buford offer anything the league-owned Hornets would want in a deal, with the Big Three and Splitter off the table? That answer remains elusive.
Per the new CBA, a trade partner does not need to send back $14 million in salary to acquire the center. Can the Spurs cobble together $9.6 million in contracts plus draft picks to entice David Stern, er, Dell Demps?
San Antonio missed on Martin. It should still swing for Kaman, no matter the probability of a rebuff.
Another post player would not necessarily plug up driving lanes or encroach on Duncan or Splitter’s space. Popovich could rest Duncan more often while avoiding the dreaded Blair-Bonner combo. He doesn’t block shots, but his size and mass still qualify as a defensive asset. His deft touch around the rim compensates for his heavy feet and his lacking agility.
There are still significant minutes available for a seven-footer in Popovich’s rotation. The coach can make room for a guy who, even at his relative worst this season, has averaged nine points and six rebounds. Prolific, vintage nights from Duncan should make asking Peter Holt to take on additional salary less of a chore.
Isn’t the greatest power forward ever traveling back to 2003 worth one more big investment to see if the additional assistance might boost both his efficiency and the squad’s championship prospects?
If the Kaman experiment does not work, Buford can let him walk this summer as a free agent. The Spurs get potential cap space and the reassurance that comes from knowing they did everything they could to improve the cast around an aging Duncan.
What if it does work?
A middle-of-the-pack frontline that sparkles on a few nights would become one of the NBA’s best, and Doc Brown might visit Duncan more often.
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