Tim Duncan's Fundamental Dominance Gives Spurs New Life, Old Hope

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IApril 5, 2010

Phil Jackson wanted to make another abrupt sideline interview all about the struggles of his Lakers, instead of the gritty, relentless play from the visitors.

He cracked a joke about finding a rabbit's foot for the Easter Bunny and then went after Bennett Salvatore and a play that caused the lead official to "T" up Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant.

"The referees turned against us," he told ABC's Lisa Salters.

The winningest coach in NBA history seemed to know his team was doomed. His face sported a look of depressing resignation.

Even with Pau Gasol playing as well as he ever has, the Spurs cruised in the final minutes to a 100-81 victory.

Something else turned against the Lakers in this Sunday afternoon match. They did not get any help from the Tim Duncan of two weeks ago.

Then, in a 92-83 loss, Duncan missed chip shots, and jump hooks three-to-five feet from the rim. He looked older than the Alamo in the process.

If he had dominated since the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, wasn't it time for his extinction?

The Spurs responded to that demoralizing home defeat with wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, and Orlando Magic.

Manu Ginobili led the charge again with his Argentina-sized cojones, scoring 17 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter. As the Spurs' guard again drove up his price, Duncan lowered the cost of the wear and tear on his knees with another dominant day at the office.

Sunday, the supposed underdog was the one delivering the beatdown.

When the Lakers pulled to within two in the fourth quarter after trailing by as many as 15, Gregg Popovich saw something that should convince him to cancel his latest appointment with the gastrointerologist.

Then, Ginobili and Richard Jefferson decided it was time for a steady diet of Timmy. Duncan delivered and outplayed Gasol and Lamar Odom down the stretch.

He contorted his body with Gasol molesting him for a three-point play.

Gasol swiped the ball from Duncan on a post-up attempt and ran the length of the floor for a slam. When the Spaniard tried the same play again, he missed and Duncan made him pay with an uncontested slam of his own.

The significance of San Antonio's victory cannot be overstated. If the Lakers miss Andrew Bynum, the Spurs long for the return of starting, All-NBA point guard Tony Parker.

Only one of those players owns a Finals MVP trophy.

Sophomore combo guard George Hill left the contest with a sprained ankle and did not return.

The undermanned Spurs won by 19 with D-League call up Malik Hairston getting crunch-time burn. Popovich had not chaperoned a triumph at Staples Center since 2007's Rodeo Road Trip—unless you count numerous embarrassments of the Clippers.

I don't.

The building looks and sounds a lot different when L.A.'s real NBA team hosts an opponent.

The aftershocks of an earthquake centered in Mexico could have been confused for the rumble of Clipper fans racing to lower their standards for that evening's game with the New York Knicks.

The Spurs defeated Hollywood's storied franchise, not the one riddled by injuries and a disgraceful, racist, and cheapskate owner.

They did it with the Duncan of old, instead of just an old Duncan.

His new norm—the product of 12-plus NBA seasons and knees as uncooperative as Ben Roethlisberger with the authorities—will have to do.

Popovich cannot expect the Duncan who averages 20 and 11 in every month of the season to surface again.

If he can post those numbers through February and recover from a few statistical dips here and there, the Spurs immediate future looks less bleak.

His legs ache every day, but his on-court leadership and drive to win burned longer when the Lakers threatened to pounce.

Sunday marked the third straight game in which Duncan put the game out of reach with his usual back-to-the-basket command.

He outplayed Dwight Howard in a tight game. He whipped the Rockets crippled front line.

When the Spurs needed to extend a late four-point lead against the league-leading Cavs, Hill threw it to Duncan, and he responded with his ageless jump hook.

Doubting Duncan, again, seems like a dangerous idea.

Maybe the Spurs cannot be champions, especially since they figure to start the playoffs on the road.

Can anyone like the chances of Utah, Dallas, Phoenix, or Denver more?

The Jazz swept the season series, but all four games were close in the fourth quarter. In a potential playoff meeting, what happened in 2007 would matter.

If the Suns continued to surge thanks to a mostly cupcake finishing schedule and happened to meet the Spurs in the first round, wouldn't Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili lick their chops?

No need to start a conga line. A layup line would do.

If the Spurs beat much better Suns squads in 2005 and 2007 without home court advantage, how could they lose now?

The Jazz could not stop the Lakers from scoring easy bucket after easy bucket. They weren't as competitive with L.A. a month ago at Energy Solutions Arena as the Spurs were at the AT&T Center.

The George Karl and Kenyon Martin-less Nuggets have looked like unarmed soldiers heading into an ambush. Playing with proper between-game rest, Denver fell behind at home by 20 to the lowly Clippers. That they won 98-90 says more about the ineptitude of the Clippers than their own fortitude.

The Mavericks may boast the edge in the I-35 series, but Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood have not turned Dallas into a defensive juggernaut. The Mavs surrendered 121 points to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a Saturday home loss.

Butler and Haywood have also never tasted the conference finals. As Jefferson and Antonio McDyess recount their own NBA Finals experiences, on what will the Mavs' trumpeted acquisitions lean?

They did learn the hard way what can happen when a player brings firearms into the locker room.

How will that nugget of knowledge help Dallas in a physical, seven-game series?

Portland needs Greg Oden and Joel Pryzbilla to have a chance to reach its potential. Brandon Roy's greatness can only take the Blazers so far.

Oklahoma City will either die by its youth or use the don't-know-any-better factor to strangle a veteran squad.

While the Lakers' "other" challengers stumble in trying to figure themselves out in time for the postseason, the Spurs have been beating elite teams their way—with defense and ball movement.

Sunday also offered other encouraging signs. Jefferson was a key part of the Spurs' third-quarter run that afforded them some breathing room.

He caught a full-court pass from Duncan for a fastbreak slam. He cut to the rim as Duncan was doubled and threw down an alley-oop while being fouled.

The Jefferson of Sunday looked more like the one Popovich wanted last June.

McDyess played a rugged fourth quarter, securing tough rebounds and nailing a 15-footer to make it 78-71.

Matt Bonner contributed eight points and some adequate defense.

Hill's injury leaves the Spurs without a non D-League point guard on their roster, and that could hurt them in their quest to avoid the eighth seed.

Even after Sunday's rout, Popovich knows better than to welcome a first-round date with Kobe Bryant.

"The ones that say, 'We don't care who we play,' they're full of baloney," Popovich said just before the game. "We're all trying to hide from the Lakers in the first round and that's the truth."

He's right to call anyone who claims to not fear the Lakers "idiots." Raise your hand if you think Bryant will let a team with such talent bow in the first round.

Still, with Ginobili en fuego, playing as well as he ever has, a productive Duncan, the return of Parker, and a revamped supporting cast, won't the Spurs always represent the Lakers greatest Western Conference challengers?

Even if they can't win without a size upgrade next to Duncan, can't they throw the hardest punches?

They boast the championship moxie lacking in most of the conference's other All-Stars not named Chauncey Billups.

When the going got tough in the third quarter, it was not hard to see why GM R.C. Buford had coveted Jefferson and McDyess in a busy offseason.

They found ways to help Ginobili and Duncan win a game they could not afford to lose.

A defeat would have given the Lakers a 3-1 series win and even more confidence heading into a first-round matchup.

Now, the Spurs and a scorching Ginobili have hope of avoiding the defending champs when the postseason begins.

No one mattered more on Sunday than Duncan. After Serge Ibaka and Al Horford had delivered highlight reel blocks and dunks at the forward's expense, Popovich needed his foundation to give him a reason for hope.

The old Duncan—with moves and legs that seem to date back to the cretaceous period—delivered.

A season most would label as disappointing became immediately better than the previous two in the span of three hours.

With new life—borne from a season-defining afternoon of dirty work at Staples Center—came an old hope.


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