Tim Duncan should not be this good at this stage of his career, yet here we are. I honestly thought he should have retired a couple seasons ago, when nagging injuries always seemed to keep him from being a major impact late in the season. However, along the way he decided to slim down, alter his game to fit his team's personnel, and the Spurs reinvented themselves in the latter 3rd of Duncan's career. The way I describe Duncan, you could just as easily describe Gregg Popovich, and this is not a mistake.
In one of my favorite Duncan profiles of his entire career, SI's Chris Ballard wrote:
The story of Duncan's career begins on an island, in the summer of 1997. That's when Popovich flew down to St. Croix to meet his team's No. 1 draft pick. On the first day, Duncan took his new coach swimming. Out they went, one man tall and assured, the other short and as pale as the sand, his arms churning furiously. Duncan led them past rocky outcroppings into deeper water, the shoreline of the island quickly receding. Popovich began to think about how far out they were, about what lay beneath, about the waves cresting off the rocks. Still, he kept going, determined not to show weakness.
Over the next three days—or two or maybe four, neither can remember—the two men swam and lay on the beach and ate, talking about life and family and priorities. Everything but basketball. Despite a difference of nearly 30 years, they connected in a way few athletes and coaches do. Today Popovich tears up just talking about it. "I really cherish that time," he says. "It was like an instant respect and understanding of each other. Almost like we were soul mates."
From that point on, the two were on the same page. Other than a brief flirtation with the Orlando Magic in 2003, when Duncan was a free agent—he and Pop stayed up late drinking beers in Pop's backyard, talking it through—Duncan never wavered in his commitment to the team. This, in turn, allowed Popovich to build his highly successful system, the tenets of which were simple: The offense runs through Duncan, the defense runs through Duncan, and if you don't like it, you're gone. It holds true to this day. "I like role players who aren't very good but have a skill," Pop says with a chuckle, though he is not joking. "I know who's going to have the ball on our team, and need players who understand this."
Moreso than even Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson, this has been the player-coach relationship that sets the standard for all others. One day Duncan will retire, and a part of me says that Pop will retire shortly thereafter.
But not today.
Today, Duncan is still the best player on the court. Last year against the Thunder, Duncan was good but was prone to wearing down late in games. We who watched knew that even if Duncan got off to a great start, OKC just needed to stay in the game and eventually the percentages would even out.
Today, Duncan is the big man on the court, not Zach Randolph, not Marc Gasol, who is finishing fast breaks on one end of the court and stopping fast breaks on the other end. He is the guy playing the point when Tony Parker is turning it over 7 times. He's the guy feeding the back-door cuts, picking and rolling with Tiago Splitter, and Duncan is the guy doing his best work in the overtime period of two consecutive games.
A couple weeks ago as the Spurs were getting ready to do battle with the Golden State Warriors, Bill Simmons wrote:
I don't think San Antonio will get past this suddenly petrifying Warriors team unless Duncan kicks it up a notch and becomes the best player in the series. The Spurs can't win with 20-and-10 Duncan; they need 27-and-15 Duncan. After all these years, does Tim Duncan have one last old-school throwback playoff performance lurking inside him?
It appears as if that's what we're watching now. Duncan is a game away from the Finals and potentially a 5th ring.
Tim Duncan, power forward GOAT, Coach Pop's soul mate, point-center, and still smiling (sometimes).