The milestone came on a shot that rarely appears on a Sports Center highlight reel.
Tony Parker nearly fumbled the ball out of bounds but gathered himself enough to bounce it awkwardly to Tim Duncan, who was open at the top of the key.
With one 20-footer, Duncan salvaged a broken play and became the 35th player in NBA history to score 20,000 points for his career. If you asked him which feat meant more, he might have picked the former.
He also would have traded that would-be special moment—which he acknowledged with a shrug and a brief wave toward the roaring AT&T Center crowd—for a win over the visiting Houston Rockets.
Winning defines Duncan, and his team has not done much of it lately. The Spurs head into February with a 28-19 record, the worst mark since 1997-1998, Duncan's rookie year.
Which stinks more?
The odor of livestock sure to greet the Spurs when they return to the AT&T Center at the end of the month or their recent 2-4 home stand?
In referee terms, San Antonio fouled out with the contest still in the balance. With an 8-8 month in the rearview mirror and a slew of road games against winning opponents ahead, the Spurs face a possibility more sobering than an in-game disqualification.
An expensive summer renovation thrust the team's payroll deep into luxury tax territory. Many swore Owner Peter Holt would never spend $80 million for one season.
He signed off on a rare spending spree to give Duncan a last shot or two at golden glory. Now closer to ninth place than first, the Spurs might not make the playoffs.
The Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns, and New Orleans Hornets will spar to the finish for the West's final two postseason slots. They will hope to play into late April, at least, along with the Denver Nuggets, the Utah Jazz, the Dallas Mavericks, and the champion L.A. Lakers.
Where and how the Spurs fit in that mix remains a mystery. Forced to guess, most are erring on the side of doom.
I know the Spurs lost four of six on a home stand they should have swept. The team's 11-and-whatever, sub-.500 record against winning foes is also a cause for concern.
That abysmal mark changes by the day thanks to the tenuous nature of the aforementioned squads jostling for those final playoff spots.
A few Eastern Conference whipping boys have also decided to fight back.
An 8-9 road record also gives me pause.
One number does not, and because of it, I still believe the Spurs can meet the lofty expectations that greeted them in October.
I cannot doubt 21.
The Spurs' version of a blackjack hand may be 33, but he's still playing at an MVP level, and he will not fail them now.
Duncan can still carry the Alamo City's pro franchise on his back. Many see slippage. I see an excellence that has endured a changing Western Conference landscape.
Even after a shooting slump in January, Duncan's still 52.6 percent from the field, good for third best in his career. He shot 54.6 percent in the 2006-2007 season and 54.9 percent in his rookie campaign.
He ranks in the top 20 in field goal percentage, blocks, points, and rebounds. No other player cracks the top 20 in all four categories.
His 22-point average through mid-December was also a career best. His 19-point average still leads the team, as does his 10.7 rebounds per game.
As his field goal accuracy dipped in January to a measly 47 percent, his work on the boards ballooned as did his assist totals.
In a 105-90 home win over the Atlanta Hawks, he corralled a career-best 27 rebounds.
If his team looked better than average, Duncan would sit at the forefront of the MVP discussion.
No one can pin the team's struggles of late solely on the Hall-of-Fame-bound forward.
Can anyone blame him at all?
Altered Offseason Regimen Works Wonders
Kobe Bryant's offseason workouts are legendary because he plays in the second largest media market in the country. People tend to notice what a sport's most popular figure does to stay in shape.
The rows of championship banners that hang in the Staples Center rafters, four of which he helped the Lakers secure, also help his visibility.
How many times have you read that "no one works as hard as Bryant does?"
The game's finest player, Bryant deserves every bit of praise showered on him. He could retire now and make a case for himself as one of the 10 greatest to ever play the game.
Duncan could make the same case, but he plays in a small market, where he can be sure ESPN and NBATV's cameras will not film him pushing tractor tires down a steep hill.
He keeps his routines out of the spotlight.
He prefers it that way.
Duncan has worked as hard as Bryant and the results of his efforts last summer show now.
After a brush with tendinosis limited his effectiveness inside, Duncan agreed with Popovich that he should start his offseason workouts a month later, sans the tire tossing.
No one in the Spurs organization asked Duncan to shed 15 pounds. He did on his own accord because he thought a lighter frame might lessen the burden on his knees.
Bryant still wants to prove his physical volition by playing through pain. Phil Jackson has already accepted that getting his star to rest for a game or two would be tougher than stopping an elephant from crapping all over the place.
In fairness to the Lakers' star, a few DNPs will not cure the broken finger on his shooting hand. He said doctors advised him that game action would be the best remedy for the ailment.
As long as Bryant continues to drill game-winners, and L.A. rules the West, no one can complain about his refusal to sit for an extended period.
Popovich encounters no such trouble with Duncan, who knows his years as a franchise star are numbered.
Duncan boasts many of Bryant's same stoic qualities, but he does not burden himself with onerous personal missions the way the Black Mamba does.
When you're chasing Michael Jordan and Lakers history, there's no time for rest.
With a desired ending place in sight, the Spurs' biggest fella has started to use the word "old" to describe himself, even though his on-court performance may be as good as it ever was.
His balky knees have held up with the All-Star break, stretch run, and playoffs on the horizon. He's draining his patented bank shot a career-best rate.
Never a consistent high-flying athlete, Duncan has always relied on acumen, certitude, and knowledge of the game as his pillars of success.
He gets the same number of shots swatted by opponents now that he did in 2002-2003, the franchise's second championship season.
Those who insist his decline has been a sharp one have accepted a myth as reality.
Be careful what you believe.
Free Throws Cost Less
Duncan last connected on more than 70 percent of his freebies in the 2007-08 season. His free throw accuracy has climbed to 75 percent.
In the previous week, he made 23 of 24 attempts from the stripe, good for 98 percent. His uncommon excellence from the foul line in January makes it easier to conceive that Duncan once hit all 17 of his free throws in a playoff game.
That remains the Spurs' all-time record.
Learning from the Greats
I asked Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler in an interview weeks ago if he struggled with the concept of retirement as so many of his peers did.
After a half-chuckle seemed to suggest he disliked my inquiry, he said "no" with confidence.
"I wanted to leave before they kicked me out," Drexler said.
Then, he smiled and laughed.
Duncan spent his first years in the league studying under David Robinson. That might explain premature talk of Duncan soon hanging up the sneakers.
Most expect him to call it quits when his contract expires in 2012. He should locate John Cusack, so he can escape the devastation if the world comes to an end.
Smart, durable players can last into their late 30s. Unlike Robinson, Duncan does not appear to like the thought of an Admiral-like sidekick role.
If he wants to leave the game as an elite player, on his own terms, he has that right.
However, even with tendinosis, Duncan averaged 19 points and eight rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2009 Playoffs.
How many coaches would love to get those numbers from a 22-year-old No. 1 pick in good health?
Revamped Cast Forces Single Coverage
The question that accompanies Duncan's MVP-level numbers is obvious.
Are teams doubling him much less because his game has deteriorated or because Popovich and R.C. Buford upgraded the supporting cast?
You should credit Richard Jefferson and the other new additions, not to mention Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, for the increased single coverage on Duncan.
More teams have resolved to let him get his one-on-one while attempting to suffocate the other stars and role players. Dallas used the strategy, and it helped them eliminate San Antonio in five games.
With fewer open looks created by doubles, Roger Mason Jr. and Matt Bonner struggled to produce.
Parker's return from an ankle sprain plus better second-half play from McDyess and Jefferson will ease the burden on Duncan.
He's already averaging a career-low 32 minutes per game, a lightened load that should keep him fresher for postseason play.
West Landscape Looks Different
A lot has changed in the Western Conference since Duncan and the Spurs last hoisted a Larry O' Brien trophy.
The L.A. Lakers replaced starters Kwame Brown and Smush Parker with Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher.
The Denver Nuggets swapped Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups. The former Finals MVP has given the Nuggets a healthy swagger and a necessary dose of intelligence.
Denver is not the same band of idiots who lost twice in five games to the Spurs in the 2005 and 2007 first rounds.
The Seattle Sonic's-turned Oklahoma City Thunder's front office employs a true star in Kevin Durant and has fielded a feisty playoff contender.
As of Monday, 11 West teams boasted winning records. With less sub-.500 outfits to pick on, the Spurs will need more good fortune than usual to escape the conference.
Every champion gets lucky at some point. How much luck Popovich will need remains to be seen.
Rodeo Trip Will Define Season
The San Antonio Livestock Show and Rodeo evicts the town's pro hoops squad for three weeks each February.
The Spurs goal this year: return home not smelling as foul as cow dung.
Anything less than a winning record could spell a nightmarish end to a season of supposed contention.
San Antonio began its eight-game sojourn Wednesday night with a 115-113 win over the Sacramento Kings. Beggars cannot be choosers.
They will take it.
A 6-2 finish would qualify as a success. A 7-1 or undefeated finish would be optimal.
The Spurs failed to pack any defensive consistency on that flight to Sacramento.
They better hope they rediscover it at the Rose Garden tomorrow night.
I remember that day as a youngster in 1997 when lottery balls rolled San Antonio's way. It did not require expertise to prognosticate Duncan as a transcendent player at his position.
I knew he and the Spurs would be special then.
I still think both can be special now.
Peter Holt did not OK an $80 million payroll to appease a stiff. He saw Duncan fight through discomfort against the Mavs to keep the Spurs within striking distance. It was not enough.
With new fangs and the most talented roster in franchise history in tow, I cannot doubt Duncan now.
One 20-footer, 20,000 points, and more to come.
I still believe.
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