While most people are preoccupied with LeBron James and the Miami Heat’s growing win streak, Tim Duncan and the Spurs are quietly once again marching along without hoopla, and without even having all of their top players. With a decisive win over the Warriors on Wednesday, the Spurs now have just one win fewer than the Heat, with much less hype. They have kept winning despite missing Tony Parker, who was mentioned as a dark-horse MVP candidate at the All-Star break, for the last eight games.
Yet while the surging Heat have attracted comparisons to the NBA’s all-time great teams, the Spurs have been conspicuously ignored. Perhaps the Spurs themselves are to blame for that. After defeating Golden State for their seventh win in nine games, the San Antonio players sounded downright glum about their performance lately.
“It’s hard to have fun when you aren’t playing up to your potential,” Spurs guard Danny Green told the San Antonio Express-News. “We know where we want to be come playoff time, and we aren’t there yet.”
That is about as sour as a player on a first-place team can sound, but the bar is simply higher in San Antonio. Gregg Popovich and Duncan are their sport’s Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, a legendary coach-player duo that collects championships and always finds a way to make it work, even as the style of play and the rest of the names on the roster change.
But the Patriots have the benefit of playing just up the road from ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Conn., and reap the benefits with plenty of air time on the worldwide leader. The Spurs enjoy excellent coverage by the likes of Jeff McDonald at the Express-News, some self-congratulatory TV color analysis and the occasional offbeat headline when Stephen Jackson says something outrageous. Otherwise, they might as well be that franchise David Stern wants so badly in the Philippines, for all the exposure they get.
Of course, a shortage of attention has its benefits. Duncan, insulated in South Texas, has avoided any Amare Stoudemire-like condemnation as his offensive game declined over the last three years. Nobody really seemed to notice that the “Big Fundamental” was not actually hitting that patented bank shot as consistently as he used to.
From 2010 to 2012, Duncan was basically the most amazing garbage man in the game, patrolling the paint on defense, hitting the glass, exploiting double teams against opponents that missed the memo that they really did not need to double him anymore, and hitting the occasional short push-shot when the situation demanded. By his own account, his jump shot has been inconsistent this year as he has dealt with soreness in his left knee.
Suddenly, an old Duncan is starting to look like the old Duncan. He is averaging 20.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game in March, increasing his season averages to 17.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocks. All of those are at least three-year highs, with the blocked shots average just two-tenths shy of his career best. Not only has his offense improved, but his defense — which never really fell off that greatly — has improved as well.
As mentioned, so-called “old guys” are faring pretty well at the moment. Andre Miller, celebrating his 37th birthday, went out and outplayed 20-somethings Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the final five minutes of Denver’s rousing win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday. Paul Pierce, closing in on 36, is playing some of the best all-around ball of his life. Shane Battier, 34, and Ray Allen, 37, have played key roles in Miami’s run.
This is no coincidence. March is the tail end of the dog days in the NBA season. Rookies hit the wall. Younger, less-disciplined players let their attention lapse. Long-time veterans who know the routine and have learned how to keep doing their jobs amid the monotony start to look spryer and more focused.
Of those, few teams attack the boredom like the Spurs, and Duncan’s resurgence bodes well for San Antonio when the playoffs begin in a month and hype replaces the humdrum.