How many big games does this make for Tim Duncan? On Friday his Spurs will visit Dallas to play the rival Mavericks. San Antonio's hold on the overall No. 1 seed isn't in danger -- its lead is 5 1/2 games over the Nos. 2 Celtics and Bulls, and 6 1/2 over the Mavs -- but the Spurs arrive with recent losses to the Bulls, Lakers and Heat by a combined 56 points. That trend must be stopped.
Duncan has been and continues to be the Spurs' stopper. He'll turn 35 next month, and his minutes (28.7), points (13.3) and other stats are at career-lows. But when the playoffs arrive those numbers will surely rise, practically out of habit.
"I've never talked to Timmy one time about changing his role -- we've had zero discussions about it," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "And his role really hasn't changed. He may not get as many touches as he used to, but he's still the foundation of our defense. He still creates the environment on the floor for us and is basically the center of the universe."
The personality of the Spurs' offense has grown more fluid and outgoing as they've pushed the pace up court and grown less effective on defense. Duncan doesn't worry about their new look or his reduced numbers, though he does acknowledge that his lessened role has helped keep him relevant defensively. "I don't use as much energy on the offensive end, my focus is more rebounding and defending now," he said. "It's all about success, and we've had success this season, obviously, playing this way. As long as we continue to [succeed], I enjoy it."
Duncan still shows defensively out to the three-point line, and he still leads the Spurs in rebounds (9.1) and blocks (1.9). "I think I'm playing pretty well defensively right now, and at this point in my career I'm pretty happy with what I'm doing," he said. He isn't quite as active as when the Spurs were known for playing the league's most intimidating defense. "He picks and chooses a little bit more now than he used to," said Popovich, which is another way of hinting at a threat for the postseason: Duncan should be able to raise his level when the games matter most.
"This is the best I've felt in a couple of years now," he said recently. "You'd expect for there to be a decline every year. But I had a good summer and I found a [knee] brace that works for me, and I feel good all the way around."
It is inspiring to see Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and other stars maintaining a high level play after 14 or more NBA seasons. The rules have been liberated to open up lanes for perimeter slashers, but Duncan says the play in the paint is just as physically challenging as it was during his rookie year of 1997-98. He has learned to exploit the variety of support systems that have developed since he's been in the NBA. "There are a lot of different reasons for it," he said of his continuing excellence. "The technology in itself, from the shoes on up to whatever treatments there are, to understanding how to feed your body, to just knowing how to do it. There's so much stuff done now that's out there that you just look for it and try to understand it and use it the right way."
"You want to talk to them and see the ways that they take care of their bodies and what they do," said Hawks 24-year-old All-Star center Al Horford. "I would definitely enjoy to be in that position, and to be able to play at such a high level at that age."
Someday there will be time for those conversations, to review Duncan's achievements and see if others are able to measure up to the most accomplished power forward of all. In the meantime, he continues to pursue a fifth championship, which would equal the achievement of Bryant and leave him one behind Michael Jordan. That pursuit continues Friday through Game No. 1,045 of his regular-season career against the Mavericks.
Now let's move on to some of your mailbag questions ...
Do you think the league's owners and players are taking anything from the NFL's labor situation? Is it possible football's lockout could scare the NBA's sides, or does the NFL's work stoppage only give NBA's dueling sides more reason to follow suit?-- Brent, Indianapolis
There are two ways of looking at the NBA in relation to the NFL. In one way, an extended NFL lockout helps the NBA. Imagine if the NFL is able to resolve its issues without sacrificing games, while the NBA lockout goes on and on: Fans will ask why basketball wasn't able to solve its problems after the owners and players in football were able to join together.
But then there's the other view, which is that the NFL's outcome will have little bearing on the NBA's. The NFL's problems are much less threatening because its owners aren't seeking to overhaul their financial model. The NBA wants to create not only an entirely new agreement with the players but also a new revenue-sharing agreement among the owners. The NFL is operating from a position of profitable strength, while the NBA owners claim to be losing hundreds of millions of dollars and therefore can't afford to be influenced by the outcome -- good or bad -- of the NFL lockout.
Before the season started, you predicted the Rockets would be the biggest surprise and Stephen Curry would be the league's breakout star. Who would you go with now?-- Chris, Asheville, N.C.
I was counting on a healthy comeback by Yao Ming when I anticipated a bounce-back year for the Rockets. As for Curry, I suppose now I would have done better in choosing the Warriors other guard, Monta Ellis.
Now that I know better, the breakout star this year has to be Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, who was an All-Star last season but has escalated his game to become the MVP favorite as well as leader of the league's most surprising team (to answer the other part of your question). Timberwolves' double-double forward Kevin Love would be runner-up to Rose for breakout star.
What's going on in Minnesota? Is Kurt Rambis out? Should they fire him? Who's the best candidate to replace Rambis if he does get fired?-- Steve, Minneapolis
The Timberwolves should replace him only if they're convinced they can't build a team to conform to the triangle -- or if they believe Rambis isn't capable of adapting to a new system. Otherwise, why make a two-year investment in a coach and his style and then throw it away? Rambis was considered a successor to Phil Jackson, so obviously there's more substance to him than can be found in his won-loss record, which in itself has more to do with their rebuilding (and now promising) roster.
If they replace him, then they'll be starting over with a new system and therefore a different view of roster needs. Why not ride out the investment in the fair-minded belief that two years of experience have made a better coach of Rambis?
The Knicks have Amar'e and Carmelo and still can't win. In fact, because of their now-atrocious defense, they seem worse off than before the trade. Time for Mike D'Antoni to go?-- Aaron, Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Anthony trade was terrific for the Knicks over the long-term, but no one should think they've got a roster that can win now. Their three stars play to a variety of styles -- Stoudemire loves to run, while Chauncey Billups is more comfortable executing in the half-court and Anthony is at his best one-on-one. So the next step is complementing them over the next couple of summers while deciding on a style that's best for all of them.
How can anyone in New York have a problem with D'Antoni after he raised the value of his players to such a high level as to enable the trade for Anthony? There wasn't much regard for his players before this year.