If one could penetrate Tim Duncan’s stoic surface to view the inner workings of his mind, last Tuesday’s matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers surely would have offered a fascinating view.
Duncan looked on in an untailored blazer as the second- and third-unit Spurs tested the starting lineup of the Lakers until minutes prior to the sounding of the final horn. While the Lakers nabbed a 102-93 victory, Duncan knew it was closer than the final score indicated: a nine-point loss in the Staples Center against the two-time defending champs, all while he held down the bench with Ginobili, McDyess, and Parker.
It wasn’t your typical loss. The Spurs knew they had already secured the number one seed in the Western Conference, ensuring home-court advantage through the entire conference playoffs. The Spurs have held down the top spot since November 22 — a late-season Lakers surge notwithstanding. For what it’s worth, the Spurs stayed in front of the Lakers and the rest of their Western peers for 143 days.
Ask the pundits, prognosticators, and even Duncan — it wasn’t supposed to be this way.
In the beginning the 2010-2011 season’s storylines were unlimited. Many predicted that the Miami Heat experiment would forever alter the course of basketball history. Kobe Bryant was striving for his sixth NBA title and second three-peat — hoping to equal Jordan in quantity as well as pattern (and both were coached by Phil Jackson, who declared he would retire at the end of this season). Would Kobe bring the Zen Master’s championship ring count to a dizzying dozen? How would the Boston Celtics respond to losing game seven of last year’s NBA Finals?
Throughout the buildup the Spurs were nestled in their usual spot — off the radar and below the fold. For years, consensus opinion tossed around outside of San Antonio held that the Spurs are undoubtedly a team worth respecting, but they are — here comes the jab — too old.
After his first 10 years in the league, Duncan had won a staggering four championships. But since 2007’s Finals sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers, “this is Duncan’s last hurrah” became the favorite phrase employed by Silver-and-Black skeptics as the Spurs struggled to return to the NBA’s biggest stage.
In five days, Duncan will celebrate his 35th birthday. He realizes that’s the age Jordan and Bill Russell were when they hoisted their final championships, sixth and eleventh, respectively. He knows that with each passing postseason the window of championship success narrows dramatically.
In 71 days, the NBA’s current collective-bargaining agreement expires, and without a new agreement there will be no next season. The volatility of the looming lockout was quite clear when the NBA announced that it would be canceling this year’s Summer League in Las Vegas. Without the stage Summer League provides, Duncan’s teammate, Gary Neal, would most likely still be living out of his suitcase, remaining basketball’s international man of mystery. So why was Duncan so cool on the bench as younger players lined up against the Lakers? Because he’s able to separate what he can control from what he can’t control. Obviously, birthdays and work stoppages can be placed in the latter category.
Can the Los Angeles Lakers continue to “turn it on” and win games? Will the Miami Heat sizzle or fizzle? Can Derrick Rose continue the running of the Bulls? Are the regular-season juggernaut Dallas Mavericks perennially playoff paper tigers? And are the Spurs too old?
Duncan knew the search for answers could wait as he sat on the bench smiling — the Spurs weren’t supposed to be atop the standings in the first place.
Manuel Solis and Rudy Gayby cover the Spurs for the Current in this bi-weekly column and throughout the week at blogs.sacurrent.com. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.