BOSTON — Tim Duncan is human, despite ample evidence to the contrary.
He needs rest. He has been injured. He gets frustrated when he plays poorly and excited when he makes a big play. He even has a bad game occasionally.
Still, doubts remain. Duncan has been so steady, so straight-faced, so clinical in his execution over his 17-year career, he has half-jokingly been called a basketball cyborg. If he one day malfunctioned on the court, revealing a network of interior chips and wiring, most people would be surprised not because he was an android, but because he malfunctioned.
At 37 years old, he is still capable of being a force. He showed that Monday against the Boston Celtics, when he scored 23 of his 25 points in the second half as his San Antonio Spurs ran away with a 104-92 win. Against a stream of younger defenders, Duncan demonstrated his long-held array of offensive moves. He unleashed bank shots, hook shots, step-back jump shots and good old-fashioned dunks to make Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass, Kris Humphries, Kelly Olynyk and Joel Anthony look like scenery.
“He wasn’t going to be denied,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We don’t have great matchups for him. There’s not many great matchups for him when he’s going like that in the NBA or the world. We tried just about everybody that we could try, and he still scored at will.”
The easy story on Duncan is that he never got frustrated, despite a two-point first half in which teammate Boris Diaw more than sextupled Duncan’s scoring output. Cyborgs don’t feel frustration, after all. But nobody wins four NBA championships without a raging competitive spirit that makes their blood boil when missed shots pile up like they were for Duncan.
“I get frustrated, just like everybody else, especially after a half like that, especially after the shots that weren’t falling for me,” Duncan said. “You just stick with it and push through it, and hopefully guys don’t have that negative energy, and they find something to continue to fight for in me.”
Read that last sentence again. In the midst of a poor shooting half — not even a full game — a future Hall of Famer was worried his play would have a negative effect on his teammates and hoped that they could still find a quality within him worth fighting for.
He didn’t need to worry. Marco Belinelli enjoyed arguably the best all-around game of his tenure in San Antonio, coming within two assists of a triple-double with 16 points, 11 rebounds and eight dimes. Diaw powered the Spurs through Duncan’s slow start and finished with 18 points. Patty Mills came off the bench to contribute 16 points, partially supplying what San Antonio would have gotten from Tony Parker, who missed the game to rest.
Even with all those contributions, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich left no doubt as to who was responsible for the turnaround in the second half, when a four-point Spurs edge ballooned into as many as 18 points. Knowing a five-day break for All-Star weekend was coming, Popovich leaned hard on his reliable anchor.
“I think a lot of it had to do with Duncan, the team’s confidence in him and how to space around him,” Popovich said. “I think they upped the defense. We changed the pick and roll defense and that helped us. But more than anything, Tim really led the way for us, as he has for 16, 17 years.”
Eventually, Duncan will have to retire. He can’t play forever, not at the level he’s become accustomed to, even if he is averaging more rebounds per game than he has in four years, his defensive rating is below 99 points allowed per 100 possessions for the third straight season and he’s assisting almost as many of his team’s baskets as he did in his prime.
But the end wasn’t coming on Wednesday. Duncan wasn’t machine-like, for once. Well-run machines don’t stall for 24 minutes the way Duncan did. Even at his most human, however, Duncan might have been his most demoralizing.
Yes, it is possible to frustrate him. The problem is, it doesn’t matter. Frustrated or not, he dominates just the same. He’s 100 percent human — just a different kind of human.