SAN ANTONIO – Practice between games in the NBA 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. “You can name them, about eight or 10 of them in this modern era starting with Magic, Bird, and all those guys, and you add Michael and whoever; about eight or 10 of those guys that have unbelievable character and professionalism.
“They last a little bit longer and they do it at a high level because it’s just how they’re built. They have that kind of competitiveness and heart and feel the responsibility to their teammates and Timmy is certainly one of those guys.”
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.
“Bob Pettit was a great scorer and rebounder. Karl Malone was a more powerful player, but they didn’t have the versatility Tim does,” Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay said. “Kevin McHale was probably the best low-post, back-to-basket big forward, and he was a good defender, but he, too, couldn’t do the things Duncan can do.”
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.
The work has paid off for Duncan and the Spurs, who are returning to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007.
He 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.
“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.”
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.”