San Antonio • The 36-year-old man quietly went to work. He pounded away in the post. Twisting and turning, taking small but powerful steps. Long-range shots followed, barely arcing before softly sinking through the net.
Every movement was smooth and precise.
Everything about Tim Duncan was anonymous.
Black shoes, black shorts, black shirt. Never talking. Never boasting. Just working.
Doing it all beneath four tall NBA championship banners he helped lift up. Putting in another day inside the Spurs’ factory-like practice facility — its unpretentious cinder-block walls and black padding-covered corners saying as much about Duncan, coach Gregg Popovich and the annual success that is San Antonio basketball as the division — and conference-title flags that serve as window dressing.
Duncan has spent 15 years on the job. Fifteen seasons doing almost everything right, rarely disappointing, normally winning and often being taken for granted. His nickname, The Big Fundamental, is half praise, half a reminder about all those boring Spurs teams that did little more than regularly rack up 50-plus win seasons and Larry O’Brien trophys by gradually wearing down opponents — and fans.
Duncan has outlasted the criticism. And he’s outlasted analysts who predicted his imminent demise.
Duncan expertly poured in 17 points, collected 11 rebounds and dished out five assists Sunday during San Antonio’s Game 1 victory against the Jazz, doing it all in a highly efficient 31 minutes and 6 seconds. With Popovich out-thinking a 2011-12 lockout-compressed season and a rested San Antonio team deeper than ever, The Big Winner has his best shot in four years to add a fifth ring.
“Coming into this year, I’ve stayed injury-free and hopefully I can continue to stay that way. … Starting the playoffs with the rest that I have, I feel great,” said Duncan, whose 28.2 average minutes this season are the lowest mark of his career.
The three-time NBA Finals MVP looked and sounded re-energized Monday. During a one-on-one session, he kicked a ball across the practice facility out of temporary frustration, quickly turned his face into a scowl, then backed down a defender and fine-tuned his attack. Minutes later, a calm and professional Duncan smiled, laughed and briefly opened up, respectfully answering questions that ranged from analytical — Wasn’t Popovich supposed to tighten his rotation during the playoffs? — to silly: How’d Duncan discover the fountain of youth?
“I just feel good. I don’t know,” Duncan said. “I had a great summer of workouts and got in real good shape. My minutes are down, and I think it’s a combination of a lot of different things — I don’t think it’s just one thing.”
There are multiple sides to Duncan’s personality. His smooth statistics and smoother game have become numbing over time — despite his being a near-certainty as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, the Spurs center’s last MVP award came in 2003 and he hasn’t won Western Conference player of the month since April 2002. But Duncan’s monotone voice and thoughtful replies are punctuated by occasional revelations.
Spurs guard Manu Ginobili blew an uncontested fast-break dunk during Game 1. Duncan led Monday’s teasing.
Unpredictable and sometimes volatile San Antonio forward Stephen Jackson became reflective as soon as Duncan’s name was mentioned. First, Jackson joked that Duncan’s still crazy after all these years — a weird, winning-obsessed, action-junkie. Then Jackson revealed the ultimate teammate is also one of his deepest confidants — a character-witness who’s long stood by and stood up for the mercurial journeyman.
“Tim’s a real guy. He’s a real dude. What you see is what you get, and that’s how I am. … That’s one person that know me better than anybody,” Jackson said.
He added: “Even though I’ve made some mistakes in my career, he knows my heart. And that’s one guy I consider a close friend of mine.”
To Utah center Al Jefferson, manning up against Duncan in the post during the playoffs is a true honor. To Jazz General Manager Kevin O’Connor, Duncan was MVP of the world from 2000-10. To Popovich, the unassuming giant an often-irritable coach affectionately calls Timmy has been a God-send.
“He’s definitely the cornerstone of our defense. We don’t play it as well as we used to, but in spurts and at certain periods of the game, we do it pretty well,” Popovich said. “Timmy’s just solid. He’s going to get beaten once in a while. But, overall, he’s going to do what we need to have done down in the post. We read off of him for most things that we do.”
As Duncan goes, so go the Spurs. Together, they’re savoring one of their best years during a long, glorious run.
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Tim Duncan file
Position • Center/power forward
Year • 15
Age • 36
Vitals • 6-foot-11, 255 pounds
Stats • 15.4 points, 9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 blocks
Career • 20.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.2 blocks
Draft • No. 1 overall by San Antonio in 1997
College • Wake Forest
Born • Christiansted, Virgin Islands
Best of the best
• 13-time All-Star
• 3 NBA Finals MVPs
• 2 NBA MVPs
• Rookie of the year
• All-Star Game MVP
• Wooden Award winner
• 4 NBA titles
• 128 double-doubles (fifth in NBA history)
• One of four players with 4,000 points and 2,000 rebounds (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone)