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Will Small-Ball Lineups Render Tim Duncan a Non-Factor in NBA Playoffs?

Mike Monroe@@Monroe_SAFeatured ColumnistApril 6, 2016

San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan stands on the court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Friday, March 25, 2016, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 110-104. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
Associated Press

Perhaps it was appropriate for Tim Duncan to join one of basketball’s most exclusive clubs in a fashion that was the polar opposite of spectacular. That’s what he has been throughout his brilliant career—steady, understated and modest. One day, he will join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish in the Hall of Fame.

Tuesday night, he became a member of their exclusive 1,000-win club.

With 4.7 seconds left in a game against the Utah Jazz, Kawhi Leonard hit an 18-foot jumper to give the San Antonio Spurs an 88-86 victory in Salt Lake City. Duncan’s contribution for the night? Three points, two blocks and zero field goals. That’s it. 

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 21:  Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs on the bench during the second half of the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 21, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Spurs defeated the Suns 118-111.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich continues to rest Duncan as often as possible in preparation for the playoffs. Duncan played only 83 seconds of the fourth period, watching the final four minutes and 24 seconds from the bench.

Averaging a career-low 25 minutes per game this season, Duncan understands there are game circumstances that don’t fit a 39-year-old big man with two bad knees. He now wears a brace on his right leg to stabilize a knee that was surgically repaired in the summer of 2000.

That is a big factor in the reduction of his role, something he has accepted with equanimity and grace. 

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 19:  Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs and Marreese Speights #5 of the Golden State Warriors during the game on March 19, 2016 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees tha
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

The question will soon become whether Duncan will see much of the court in more consequential games, particularly against their Thursday opponent, the Golden State Warriors, in a likely Western Conference Finals showdown.

Duncan missed the first game at Oracle this season with his sore right knee. In the Spurs’ 87-79 win at AT&T Center on March 19, he ceded his starting spot to Boris Diaw and played only eight minutes. Golden State’s Andrew Bogut was out with an injury, and Warriors coach Steve Kerr opted to start a small lineup with Draymond Green, charitably listed at 6'8", at center.

Defending against such a lineup no longer suits Duncan.

It was hardly a surprise when Duncan happily accepted his role as cheerleader and unofficial coach during that March matchup. He counseled both LaMarcus Aldridge and Leonard during timeouts and was on his feet, pumping his fist, as his teammates closed out an important win.

“He cares about winning, period,” Spurs guard Danny Green said. “Obviously, any player who is as great a competitor as Tim wants to play. But he knows the big picture and he sees the game is bigger than him. Winning games is bigger than him getting his minutes.”

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Nearing his 40th birthday (April 25), Duncan remains one of the NBA’s best interior defenders. Even playing only 25 minutes per game, he averages 1.3 blocks, many of which he claims are accomplished without jumping at all. He is a master of timing and positioning around the basket and still strong enough to hold his position. He is still the Spurs’ No. 2 rebounder at 7.4 per game.

It is when he is asked to play against small lineups intended to make him guard out to the three-point line that Duncan shows the ravages of both age and injury. 

The Spurs probably won’t know their first-round opponent until the final day of the regular season, but none of the candidates to land in the seventh seed have the small-ball potential to significantly affect Duncan’s court time.

An anticipated second-round matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder would be more problematic. Duncan matches up nicely against Steven Adams or Enes Kanter, but not so well against Serge Ibaka, who has hurt the Spurs from long range in past playoffs.

Who does Duncan guard if head coach Billy Donovan were to go small with Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson (or Dion Waiters), Randy Foye (or Waiters), Kevin Durant and Ibaka as the only true "big"?

Of course, it's the Warriors who can throw lineups on the court that truly challenge Duncan's ability to guard.

“Timmy’s a little older now, so the super small game is harder for him,” said Green, one of the NBA’s more underrated perimeter defenders. “We try to slow the game down if we can, but a lot of times those guards are moving so fast that it’s harder for him now, at his age and with one leg. He’s been doing it for so many years with one leg.

“It’s tough, really tough, and when you’ve got those guys shooting from 28 feet, it’s hard to ask any big man to do that, even younger big men with two good legs. I still think Tim is very capable and versatile enough to guard anybody, anywhere. But it’s best if he can save his body for other matchups and lineups.”

Before he took the job as New Orleans Pelicans head coach, Alvin Gentry was a trusted Warriors assistant coach privy to Kerr’s strategy during the Warriors’ run to the 2015 NBA title. He knows the tactical thinking behind Kerr’s use of a small lineup against the Spurs if Duncan is on the floor.

“It works because they have a guy, Draymond Green, that’s capable of guarding Tim, but (Tim) can’t get out on the floor and guard him,” Gentry said. “I think Pop is at the stageand Tim’s at the stagewhere he wouldn’t ask him to chase Draymond around. But Boris can. And then that forces (the Warriors) to put somebody on Boris, and Boris is a great post-up player and a great facilitator.

“That’s the cat and mouse I’m talking about, and Tim doesn’t care about not starting or playing less minutes. All Tim cares about is the result and what happens. That’s all.”

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16:  Andrew Bogut #12 of the Golden State Warriors fights for position against Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs in Game Six of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2013 NBA Playoffs on May 16, 2013 at the Oracle Arena in O
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Bogut is back nowhe played 32 minutes against the Timberwolvesand that gives Duncan someone to guard in a likely series with Golden State, with Aldridge defending Green. 

Nobody can predict if Popovich will rest some of his players Thursday, but no matter who suits up or sits, the Spurs coach will have to figure out an adjustment when the Warriors again choose to go small, which a veteran NBA scout assures they will any time they play the Spurs—especially if they meet in the Western Conference Finals.

“At some point Steve is going to say, ‘We’re going small and go ahead and try to guard us,’ the scout said, who has been charting games for more than 20 years.

And when they do?

“I can see Pop trying to go big on them because Aldridge and Tim are so good in the high-low combination,” the scout said. “I can see him saying, ‘You want to go small? Watch this!’ And then pound it in.”

There was a time when “pound it in” meant dumping the ball to Duncan. But he is now the facilitator at the high post in that high-low combo, another concession to age.

Like Abdul-Jabbar and Parish before him, Duncan has aged gracefully. He’s not on the court as much as he used to be, but it is a testament to his greatness that even when seated, he still is attaining milestones few have achieved before him.

Mike Monroe has covered the San Antonio Spurs for 12 years and the NBA at large for 35 years. He has served as president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association and is one of two recipients of its Phil Jasner Lifetime Achievement Award.