At 37 years old, Tim Duncan is still one of the best players in the NBA.
Tim Duncan became the oldest player to score at least 20 points and grab 20 rebounds last night, as the San Antonio Spurs narrowly escaped a loss to the Atlanta Hawks thanks to a Duncan game-winner, but that's not enough to cement the Big Fundamental's legacy.
Tim Duncan for many years has defied age and remained relevant well into his 30s. Last year, with the help of Tony Parker and rising star Kawhi Leonard, he was one Ray Allen miss away from his fifth ring and an easy escort out of the NBA into a Hawaiian shirt and a recliner. Alongside longtime head coach and buddy Gregg Popovich of course, who told the San Antonio Express-News that he would retire when Duncan did (h/t FoxSports Southwest):
When he doesn't think he can, he'll stop. It might be in the middle of a game. I can see him walking of the court saying 'Nah, I'm not pulling my weight anymore, I'm gone.' And he'll walk. And I'll be right behind him, like this. No pride, no nothing.
He would have gone out on top. The best power forward of all time, five-time NBA champion, a 14-time All-Star, two-time regular season MVP and possibly a three-time Finals MVP. As Tony Parker told TNT's Rachael Nichols, "I would love for Timmy to go out on top. Just like David Robinson went out on top in 2003, I would love to do the same thing for Timmy." Picture perfect.
But that wasn't how it happened.
Ray Allen crushed Tim Duncan and the Spurs' championship hopes with one last-second three-pointer. And the Spurs let the 2013 NBA title slip away.
Now Tim Duncan is back, not willing to retire with that ending. And although he has been producing unreal numbers for a 37-year-old NBA player over the past few years, it's taken him a little while to warm up this season.
Last year, Duncan averaged 18.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game during the playoffs. This year, for the month of November, which includes all but two of the Spurs 2013-14 regular season games so far, he averaged 13.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
For a while it seemed like the gut-wrenching Game 6 of the NBA Finals was too much for the aging Duncan. It seemed that instead of the storybook ending of going out on top, he may just slowly fizzle out, becoming a shadow of his former self. Leaving some thinking that maybe he should have retired.
But we're prone for exaggerations in the early part of the NBA season.
Duncan proved last night that despite his age, he can still produce almost as well as he could in his prime. He had 23 points, 21 rebounds and shot 10-of-15 from the floor. He also added two blocks and played the most minutes he has all season, 35.
And that he is. That's why coach Gregg Popovich went to him on the last play of the game with 4.7 seconds left.
When we think of game-winners, we think of guards like Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan dribbling down the court and pulling up, or Kevin Durant or most recently Russell Westbrook making a last-second three. Not a big man coming off a down screen to curl into a 15-footer, which is exactly what Duncan did, seen in the video below:
But Popovich knew who to go to to win that game.
The four-time NBA champion had been shooting over 60 percent for the game, and he is just that, a champion. Sure, Popovich could have gone to Tony Parker, who was also shooting over 60 percent for the game, but he went with his old faithful, Tim Duncan.
His historic 20-20 game punctuated by a game-winner cemented his individual legacy as one of the greatest power forwards to ever play the game. But his legacy will not be complete without another championship.
If Duncan walked away now, he would still be seen as all that—one of the best power forwards and probably one of the best players to ever play the game. But there would always be that piece missing. That "what if he had one more ring with Pop?" or "what if he had stuck it out for a few more seasons?"
With one more championship, his legacy would be complete.
He would have overcome age and a gut-wrenching loss in the Finals. He would have faced adversity and bounced back, ultimately fulfilling the last piece of his legacy, of the Duncan-Popovich dynasty.
Duncan's game last night was superb. He snapped out of his beginning-of-the-season haze and showed the world he's not quite done.
His legacy is not fulfilled yet, however. That last piece, that one last Larry O'Brien trophy will cement his legacy as one of the greatest players of all time.