Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol Set to Give Tim Duncan Toughest Test Yet

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Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol Set to Give Tim Duncan Toughest Test Yet
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The resurgence of Tim Duncan has perhaps been the most fulfilling story line of the season, but he's going to have the toughest test of his career in the first round of the playoffs against the Dwight Howard-Pau Gasol front line of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Along the way, Duncan has gone up against Karl Malone, Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowtizki, Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber, Amar'e Stoudemire, and, most recently, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka in the playoffs, and we can see a bit of a pattern more recently.

Obviously we can look at Duncan as an older, less spry version of himself compared to years past, especially if we go back all the way to the days of Shaq, or even Amar'e on the Phoenix Suns.

What Duncan has struggled with over the past two seasons (at least as far as the playoffs go), are younger, faster big men on teams with players capable of slashing to the rim and forcing him to come to give a bit of help.

The Big Fundamental had to deal with a horrifying tandem of Randolph and Gasol in 2011, and the top-seeded Spurs fell to the eight-seed Memphis Grizzlies in six games.

A problem arose when it became evident that the cure for the Grizzlies' lack of Rudy Gay was going to come in the form of a huge dose of Randolph and Gasol, who combined to score nearly 36 points per game and grab over 21 rebounds.

It wasn't that Duncan was unable to keep up with either of the two, it was that he had little help in corralling them both.

San Antonio still started Antonio Mcdyess two seasons ago. He was a capable player when he was on the court, but his slow-footed play in the post, his age (he was 36 at the time), and his inability to jump higher than a few inches off the ground meant he would be in the game for about 24 minutes.

That left the Spurs with a defensive liability in Matt Bonner, or the young and untested DeJuan Blair or Tiago Splitter on the floor.

Last year was a very different elimination, as there was an obvious focus on the perimeter game with the Oklahoma City Thunder, rather than inside like with the Grizzlies.

Generally speaking, it was Ibaka that Duncan had to cover, who presented a very different challenge. While he wasn't the biggest threat to explode offensively, Ibaka's main game was efficiency, and his speed, athleticism and range allowed him to shoot over 58 percent.

Meanwhile, that same speed and athleticism plagued Duncan on offense. Ibaka was able to use his incredibly long arms, spring-like ability to leap, and his terrific timing to force Duncan into tougher shots. The result was not Duncan disappearing, but rather just having a rough go, shooting 44 percent on 17 points per game.

Duncan's impact was minimized, but then again we were still seeing the pre-resurgence Duncan.

However, this year's game presents a unique challenge in that he has to face a combination of what gave him fits in the past two Spurs' eliminations.

Not only do the Lakers have two seven-footers to put on the floor, but they have a unique combination of athleticism, speed, strength, ball-awareness, range and passing ability between the two of them.

Even more demanding, after the Lakers lost Kobe for the rest of the season, it became painfully obvious that they were going to have to run their offense through the post, be it low with Howard or high with Gasol. This means Los Angeles has been forced into a similar situation to the 2011 Grizzlies without Rudy Gay.

No matter who Duncan covers, be it Howard or Gasol, it's going to be tough for the Spurs to completely make up for the presence of the other.

There's a distinct, and eerily similar drop-off in production that Duncan has against the Lakers this season when compared to what he did in the regular season against either the 2011 Grizzlies or the 2012 Thunder.

Averaging just 16.3 points and 8.7 rebounds, Duncan shot just 44.3 percent against Los Angeles this season, all numbers being noticeably below his averages of 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 50.2 percent shooting.

Harry How/Getty Images

Against Memphis in 2011, Duncan averaged just 11.3 points and 8.7 rebounds, shooting 41.9 percent. That, compared to an average of 13.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 50 percent shooting overall is a drastic difference.

If you go on to look at what he did against the Thunder during the season last year, you'll see yet another obvious drop-off. Just 13.3 points on 35 percent shooting, although he did average 13.7 rebounds in three games against Oklahoma City.

His season averages last year put him at 15.4 points, nine rebounds and 49.2 percent shooting, yet another considerable difference when playing the team that would eventually eliminate the Spurs.

We watched as two effective big men plagued Duncan and the Spurs in 2011, then we saw the Thunder use Ibaka's athleticism to nullify his impact in 2012.

Of course, what the Spurs have now in Tiago Splitter is a viable running mate for Duncan in the frontcourt. He's not quite the mistake-making, young buck that he was in the past two seasons.

Splitter has grown quite a bit as the pick-setter in a pick-and-roll scenario, and his defensive instincts have grown playing alongside Duncan.

The Spurs now have another big man who is entirely capable of staying on the floor for at least 30 minutes, as he is entirely capable of taking care of himself on either end.

Splitter being another seven-footer (or right around that) gives Duncan a ton of help in the post. The only question is whether he'll play smart enough to deal with Gasol, or strong enough to contain Howard.

What Duncan and Splitter have to deal with in either Gasol or Howard could become problematic.

Howard is the epitome of that strong, athletic big that has given him troubles in the years since his steady trickle toward slowing down.

Harry How/Getty Images

It's not necessarily that Howard can beat Duncan with a specific skill set, it's just that he's so overpowering and quick with his moves up and toward the basket that Duncan will likely have troubles guarding him and not committing fouls.

Defensively, Howard's size and reach just make him impossible to deal with perfectly. Howard will get and hold defensive position simply because of his strength, and Duncan will have to shoot well over him or hope to maneuver around him in order to avoid having his shot altered back into his face.

Then there's Gasol, who is by no means faster or stronger than Duncan, but his style of play can drag Duncan out of the post to keep him out of his most effective area as a defender.

Gasol's biggest weapon over the past few games has been his passing, as his jumper has come and gone, but his eyes have stayed strong.

Duncan will have to cover a man basically playing the pivot in the high post, looking first for Howard getting loose around the rim, or one of a handful of shooters trying to put in a three-pointer.

In that case, Duncan's job is going to be ball denial, and then making passing angles disappear.

Basically, Duncan will be charged with alternatively guarding two completely different basketball players.

Suddenly, San Antonio finds themselves locked in a matchup with a Lakers team touting two effective big men, one of which has all the athleticism in the world to use on Duncan. It seems as if this could be the wrong combination of players for the Spurs to meet in the first round.

Will similar regular-season struggles against the Lakers mean elimination like it did against Memphis and Oklahoma City in years past? We'll find that out in the next few weeks.

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