SAN ANTONIO – Practice between games in the Western Conference finals had long wrapped for the San Antonio Spurs and a few players stayed around to continue working.
Those remaining were primarily end-of-rotation players such as Patty Mills and Tracy McGrady but quietly working alone in a corner of the practice facility was the cornerstone of the franchise.
Tim Duncan was using a ball-return machine with high netting that forced him to float shot after shot into the basket. Duncan would use the floater to knock down critical baskets in two overtime victories that helped the Spurs sweep the Memphis Grizzlies and advance to their fifth NBA finals.
“I’m a competitor,” Duncan said.
“I just want to play, I just want to play and try to win and try to be the best that I can. The last couple of years my game has declined and changed and I wasn’t ready to let it go. I wanted to play as well as I can as long as I can.’’
The 37-year-old’s resurgence in his 16th season isn’t magic, it’s mundane. It’s losing 30 pounds in the offseason, realizing his own limitations and practicing a floater on the same day he became the second-oldest player selected to the All-NBA first-team.
“The greatest players have that drive,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
Duncan is averaging 17.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists in the postseason, almost identical to his regular-season
numbers of 17.8 points and 9.9 rebounds.
The days when Duncan was the primary offensive threat on teams led by David Robinson, Avery Johnson and Bruce Bowen are gone, replaced by the whirling dervish that is Tony Parker and the outside shooting of Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Matt Bonner and Gary Neal.
In between those eras, Duncan established an
unquestionable Hall of Fame career.
A defensive stopper, he also has become one of the game’s best passing big men and a jumper off the backboard became his signature shot.
He is a 14-time All-Star, three-time NBA Finals MVP and has been selected to the All-NBA first team 10 times.
But, prior to this season, knee and back injuries severely limited Duncan’s game. He hadn’t earned an All-NBA First-Team selection since 2007 and averaged 13.4 and 15.4 points in his previous two seasons. Those are respectable numbers for most but not for Duncan. So, he spent the offseason working with former
boxing world champion “Jesse” James Leija to improve his conditioning and was a constant on the 45-degree, 40-yard-long man-made hill outside the team’s practice facility.
WORK PAYS OFF
The work has paid off for Duncan and the Spurs, who are returning to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007.
Duncan averaged 2.6 blocks this season, the most since 2005, and he shot a career-best 81 percent on free throws while remaining relatively healthy for much of the season.
“He hasn’t slowed down a step it seems like,” Bonner said.
“His early nickname, ‘The Big Fundamental,’ has held true. I think as you get older your fundamentals stay as your speed, quickness, vertical, athleticism dissipate.
“He relies on high basketball IQ, high skill level,
fundamentals and he is a great leader. He’s an awesome player; he doesn’t seem to slow down.”
Duncan said he doesn’t put in the extra work to motivate his younger teammates but they can’t help but be inspired.
“I feel very blessed, very lucky to play with Timmy,” Parker said.
“He’s a great example for me. All those years the discipline, the dedication to the game and to our team and to the Spurs’ organization has been unbelievable.”
Duncan can win his and the Spurs’ fifth title, which is an opportunity he is not taking for granted at the tail end of his career.
“I love playing. I love playing,” Duncan said.
“I’m going to miss it when I’m gone. So, I’m enjoying every minute.
“I know my time is running short here, so every minute I’m on the court, the practice court, (or) whatever it may be, I’m enjoying being here.’’