12 years ago, in a crucial Game 5 against the Phoenix Suns during the first round of the playoffs, Tim Duncan had 23 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks in 39 minutes of action and led the San Antonio Spurs to a 3-2 series advantage. The Spurs closed the series out in six games.
On Tuesday night, in a crucial Game 5 against the Los Angeles Clippers during the first round of the playoffs, Tim Duncan had 21 points, 11 rebounds, and one block in nearly 39 minutes of action and led San Antonio to a 3-2 advantage. The Spurs will try to close out the series in six games on Thursday night; if they succeed, it’ll be Duncan’s 34th career playoff series victory.
Since he entered the league in 1998, Duncan has been the centerpiece of the Spurs’ dynasty-esque run, largely due to performances like those. His uncanny consistency isn’t news to anybody, but at this point in his career––Duncan’s 18th in the league––those steady performances are starting to feel like a supernatural phenomenon. Look at those those stat lines! They’re nearly identical, and they’re a dozen years apart.
How does he do it? Well, it helps to have stayed with the same team for his entire career, guided by one of the best NBA coaches of all time and certainly the greatest of this generation in Gregg Popovich. But system familiarity and a great supporting cast help more to explain the long winning streaks and five NBA championships. They don’t help explain why Duncan, three days after his 39th birthday, is still halting shot attempts like this one from his younger, faster, more athletic peers:
Duncan’s huge block against Blake Griffin in the fourth quarter of Game 5 probably won’t show up on any of his top 10 highlight lists, but it was the type of ho-hum relentlessness that has defined Duncan’s entire career and made him a great player. The play itself was barely flashy, with Duncan simply fighting off Jordan and sticking his hand up in the air to fight off a dunk attempt. There was no sending the ball into the stands or screaming for effect. The ball stayed in play, and the Spurs immediately played on.
But to even get there for the block showed a commitment to defense and an awareness of how to play it that many players never reach, and to actually pull off the block demonstrates the type of hand-eye coordination and body control that many players either lose by 30 or never have at all. Duncan has enjoyed all of those qualities to various degrees in one way or another throughout his career, finding ways to supplement his diminishing athleticism with a greater understanding of the game as he has grown older. (As well as a position change.)
It’s easy to see why people take the Big Fundamental for granted, starting with the, well, fundamental nature of his game. As mentioned, Duncan is a results man, with no regard for how the job gets done, only that it happens. While the results (i.e. winning) have always been there, the flair hasn’t, which means the cameras haven’t always been there either. Similarly, Duncan is quiet and reserved in both his on- and off-court demeanors, and he doesn’t play for the US National Team. All in all, fans’ exposure to Duncan, compared to someone like LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, is minimal, and when they do get to see him, it’s like seeing the very skilled post guy at the YMCA go to work.
Even though that’s not necessarily “fair,” it’s more than OK. It’s human nature to take consistency, no matter how great, for granted, and it certainly wouldn’t bother Duncan. More to the point, it makes it that much easier to marvel during moments like this, when his abstract, well-accepted greatness is crystallized into a moment like his block of Griffin with just a minute to go, trying to protect a two-point lead. We don’t think of Duncan right away when considering which player in the entire league we might want protecting the rim in that situation; we are stupid for that, and Duncan reminds us of this. We take Duncan for granted so we can appreciate his greatness that much more when he forces us to take notice, when he guides the Spurs through the championship hunt every year.
He’s trying it again this season, although even closing out this Clippers series won’t be an easy task. Duncan surely knows this, though, so that’s why he’ll approach these last two games the same way he has approached the first five. That’s what’s great about Duncan: he’s always aware of the moment, mentally present as a leader, but also physically ready to contribute in any way. All playoff games are the same for Duncan––they exist solely to be won, whether it’s 2003 or 2015.