A regular season date against the hapless Indiana Pacers might not send Spurs fans rushing to the AT&T Center box office to snatch up tickets, but opening night several weeks ago mattered. If NBA labor strike yields the expected work stoppage, it might prove to be Tim Duncan's last.
The Big Fundamental, as Shaquille O'Neal once dubbed him, allows San Antonio followers to take those supposed guaranteed victories for granted. Maybe, for once, they can realize that not all rare gifts last a lifetime. How many deplorable lottery teams wish they had won the league's draft jackpot in 1997, instead of when Kwame Brown or Michael Olowokandi shook David Stern's hand first?
The 8-1 Spurs can still lean on Duncan to carry them through the toughest stretches of tight games and to anchor the defense in blowouts. Saturday and Sunday nights offer the best picture of how and why change and consistency now intersect.
Doug Collins' miserable Philadelphia 76ers endured a 116-93 bloody beating that the coach says could have been a 60-point defeat "if Gregg Popovich wanted." The Spurs suffocated the isolation-happy Sixers in the third quarter en route to a layup drill. Philadelphia managed just 13 points then, surrendering 35 in the same frame and 39 in the first period.
The Oklahoma City Thunder skipped and waltzed to 66 first-half points the next night, the team's highest total through 24 minutes this season. The Spurs piled up 61, but ugly shooting doomed any chance at an early lead. San Antonio took charge after halftime thanks to a three-point shooting clinic from Matt Bonner, who drained all seven of his treys, and a Thunder squad still seeking an elusive defensive bravado.
Duncan's totals in the weekend beatdowns—seven points (two-of-nine shooting) and six rebounds, and six points (two-of-seven shooting) and four rebounds—suggest a speedy slippage for the greatest to ever man his position.
Other performances indicate otherwise.
The depleted, winless Houston Rockets ventured to the Alamo City two weekends ago, desperate to escape the L column. Rick Adelman opted not to play Yao Ming against the Spurs and saved his still out-of-sync 7'6" center for Sunday's joust with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Aaron Brooks stepped on one of Manu Ginobili's feet while attempting a last-second three-pointer as the second quarter buzzer sounded and sprained an ankle. Kyle Lowry did not make the short trip because of back spasms. Kevin Martin also tweaked an ankle and did not return for the second half.
A win served on a silver and black platter became a shootout and a character examination when the Spurs predictably lost focus and interest after building a 13-point lead. The Rockets would not go away, even with both rotation point guards, the handsomely paid starter at the two and Yao unavailable in crunch time. Duncan's 19 points and 11 rebounds ranked as a secondary story to Ginobili's game-tying 16-footer, or his clinching steal and free throws, but they were integral contributions.
These Spurs continue to eke out victories, but luck and personnel changes now play a much larger role. Courtney Lee bricked a pair of free throws that would have iced the Rockets affair. Surprise training camp survivor Ishmael Smith, a frigid long-distance shooter, could not overcome his inexperience and shabby stroke with his grit and fiery attitude.
Gregg Popovich hates the "what if" game, but he knows Brooks, Martin, Yao and Lowry make a sizable difference for Adelman's Rockets. He did not celebrate that W and his veteran leaders did not dare to mistake it as confirmation of title contention.
San Antonio and Houston used to spar in defensive slugfests. Forget 78-74. Now, supporters on both ledgers bang their TVs and pray that someone will get a stop. The Spurs, once deemed the NBA's ugliest, most unwatchable defensive juggernauts, at times resemble more of a manic, full-speed-ahead Mike D'Antoni operation than a plodding, Popovich establishment.
This is what a coach and proud franchise get when they replace a burned-out Bruce Bowen with Richard Jefferson and rely on a bevy of adolescent high-octane shooters and open-court athletes to supplement Tony Parker, Ginobili and Duncan.
Popovich once preached patience and a molasses-like pace that made turtles at the San Antonio Zoo look like capable sprinters. He then pondered Duncan's shrinking chance at a fifth title and decided his hallmark stars need not labor so for clutch baskets. Popovich demanded an emphasis on transition baskets in the preseason, and these Spurs have delivered on his stern request by becoming one of the league's five best open-court scoring behemoths.
The coach trusted his defense throughout the 2000s to sew up marquee contests and playoff series. Now, when a handicapped team like the Rockets comes looking for a high-scoring fight, he can respond with his own jabs—a George Hill jumper off a back screen, a Parker leaner, a Jefferson corner trey or a signature Ginobili and-one drive. Duncan, as evidenced by his 25 points (11-of-13 shooting) and 17 rebounds in a victory at Phoenix, can still find the net from the low block.
The Thunder witnessed the same transformation, when Bonner delivered a display of long-distance marksmanship fit for All-Star Weekend, as did the Sixers, when the Spurs racked up 18 fast-break points in the first quarter alone.
As the team's identity shifts, the foundation remains the same. Duncan's minutes figure to dwindle as he climbs in age, with a career exit on the horizon, but his influence and impact still loom large.
These Spurs keep winning at a torrid 8-1 pace because they know Duncan will not stick around for an encore or even a twilight. Popovich has allowed and pushed Parker and Ginobili to become the squad's driving forces because he knows Duncan can handle a reduced role on some nights.
Players assigned to defend the Argentine and Frenchman are now as helpless as those who tried to check Duncan when a post-up for most of the 2000s yielded a guaranteed basket. Parker has re-established himself as the toughest guard to keep away from the rim, and Ginobili balances his awkward-looking three-balls with tricky drives. Both can get to the charity strip whenever they want, and Jefferson's renewed impudence adds to the perimeter-to-bucket assault.
The Spurs earned a preposterous 38 free throws against the Thunder and converted 34 of them.
"That's a miracle for us," Popovich told San Antonio Express-News NBA writer Mike Monroe, "or, at least, very unusual."
He should get used to it. The Spurs will continue to score more than they ever have in the Popovich era. Sunday showed they can also still play stifling defense in stretches. The Thunder labored through a 14-point brickfest in the third quarter, while the Spurs located the downtown touch missing a year ago and a clue.
Holding this amped-up San Antonio squad below the century mark will rank as an accomplishment for most foes, whereas it once was an easier task than wasting money on the Riverwalk.
Duncan has adapted before, and he appears willing and ready to do so again. He arrived in the Alamo City with David Robinson as his superior and mentor. His backcourt teammates boasted a slower first step than Cloris Leachman on Dancing With the Stars. Robinson stepped aside to hasten Duncan's development and then retired after his second championship in 2003.
Since The Admiral said "see ya" with a double-double, a fist pump and a smile, Duncan has shared the middle with a "who's that" list of stopgap bigs—Fabricio Oberto, Francisco Elson, Nazr Mohammed, Melvin Ely, Jackie Butler and Ian Mahinmi. Hedo Turkoglu was the biggest name, and he flamed out faster than a candle in Antarctica. Kurt Thomas never got to play alongside Ginobili in full health.
Tiago Splitter transported his rugged interior game from Europe to San Antonio this summer and already looks like a sure bet to become Duncan's finest frontcourt sidekick since Robinson. Antonio McDyess does not sport the look of a man prepared to cede his coveted championship ring to anyone without administering a few bruises and critical mid-range hits along the way.
No one can blame McDyess and Duncan for feeling like old souls entrenched in a youth movement. Old is still fashionable when it counts.
These Spurs can still lean on No. 21 as an anchor, even if box scores and game tape suggest the team now belongs to Parker and Ginobili. San Antonio seems poised to win more contests than the previous season for the first time in four years. The current seven-game winning streak exceeds the longest victory march achieved last year—five.
When the L.A. Lakers, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics come looking for a fight, Duncan will want to rumble as the center of attention. The Spurs can thump hapless opponents and even supposed elite ones without monster efforts from him, but they know he still holds the biggest knife.
That should hammer home the reality that will hit silver and black fans and even David Stern hard as soon as July 1, 2011. A lockout could push a number of veteran stars—Shaquille O'Neal, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd and others—out before they get the chance to call it quits on their own terms. Duncan seems like an early candidate because he does not crave the adulation Shaq does, and he will not bounce around to chase more rings if his balky knees hold him back from All-Star production.
Will his body cooperate after a one-year layoff? He takes care of it as much as any star does, but he also knows Father Time often carries out alternate plans.
Ginobili approached Popovich this summer and implored the coach to regard late October, November and December with more urgency. Popovich laughed and responded that Ginobili and his teammates should make more shots and get more stops.
Armed with the contract extension that should allow him to retire a Spur, the 33-year-old Ginobili has led by example. Parker, who also netted a lucrative extension, has attacked what he called the trio's "last chance" to win a title together with ample doses of speed and appropriate fear.
The Spurs have yet to face the Celtics, Heat or Lakers, but an 8-1 record serves as evidence this team remains as much of a title threat as those expected titans. Jalen Rose take note: They're still contenders.
Opening night shows why. Duncan tallied 23 points and four blocks, and the Spurs won a season starter for the 13th time in 14 tries during his era. The free throws will keep coming, but Duncan might not when this campaign ends.
Popovich knows he cannot expect the familiar sight of jump balls involving the future Hall of Famer, or the annual All-Star, All-NBA and All-Defense nods, much longer. Parker and Ginobili seem to understand the same. The Spurs' rapid start and dedication to a breakneck pace, then, is no surprise, given that Duncan has made a habit of treating every NBA start like his last.
He will hang up the sneakers when his body tells him it's time without creating a spectacle or convening a TV special on ESPN.
San Antonio can slow down and rest when Duncan's gone. Because that sobering moment may come as fast as the points do now, the Spurs will make this last ride, wherever it leads, one to remember.