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Duncan still drives Spurs' success

Was this, he was asked before Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals, the best Spurs team he has ever seen?

"I'm not ready to give them that yet," he said. "You've got to remember, I played these guys in the [NBA] Finals. But they're tough. We've got to pretty much play the perfect game to beat them."

Some three hours later, the only team that approached perfection was San Antonio, which extended its winning streak to 18 games and became the 12th team in NBA history to sweep the first two rounds of the playoffs. And rest assured, there was no need for a postgame interview with Martin to know that he -- and everyone else -- had started to wonder if this is the best the four-time champion Spurs have ever been.

Since the Spurs defeated Martin's New Jersey team in the 2003 Finals for the second of those four titles, very little has changed about their core and nothing has changed about why they're so good at making it all work. Yes, this is a more high-octane version of San Antonio, an offensive-minded, fast-paced group that is no longer defined by its defensive dominance. But with Tim Duncan still manning the middle as he pursues his fifth championship, his exceptional talent and selflessness remain the driving forces behind all that is special and successful about these Spurs, who play host to Oklahoma City in Game 2 of the conference finals on Tuesday after rallying in the opener for their 19th consecutive victory.

[Gallery: NBA's most dominant playoff runs]

As Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard chronicled recently, Duncan's anti-star persona has had everything to do with San Antonio's sustained excellence. Duncan is a rare breed in an era where the focus on the individual has never been greater, a culture of stars who align and the endless debate over clutchness, closers and "hero ball." If Duncan were an X-Men character, he'd be the one they call "Darwin," always adapting in order to survive and thrive.

Point guard Tony Parker may have taken over as San Antonio's centerpiece, but you'll find no fight for alpha-male status from Duncan, who has gracefully adjusted to his complementary role while finding his way to the fountain of youth at the same time. Duncan, 36, a 15-year veteran whose legs have endured the equivalent of more than two extra seasons in playoff appearances (185 games), missed the memo about attrition. After the worst postseason of his career a year ago, he's seen a spike in his playoff scoring (12.7 points to 17.4) while shooting 52.3 percent from the field and maintaining his rebounding (9.2) and defensive presence (1.8 blocks).

"I've just got one hand hanging on his coattail, and he's just dragging me around," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.

Popovich led the Spurs to a 17-47 record after replacing Bob Hill early in the 1996-97 season, when the team finished 20-62. A year later, after Duncan's arrival as the No. 1 pick from Wake Forest, the Spurs went 56-26, the first of 15 consecutive playoff appearances (the longest active streak in the NBA) and the beginning of the best decade-and-a-half stretch in league history (.702 winning percentage).

The NBA's Coach of the Year was asked recently whether he ever slows down to reflect on what Duncan has meant to his career.

"I do it constantly," Popovich said with a grin. "Every time I walk around the house, like once a month, I tell my wife to say, 'Thank you, Tim.' "

Reporters laughed, but Popovich wasn't kidding.

"I'm serious," he deadpanned.

Days later, as the Spurs prepared for the Thunder, Popovich was still banging the same drum.

"Before you start handing out applause and credit to anyone else in this organization for anything that's been accomplished," he told reporters in San Antonio, "remember it all starts with and goes through Timmy."

[Gallery: Rare photos of Tim Duncan]

Duncan's recent revival is largely due to his new physique, as he slimmed down last summer with the hopes of recapturing some of the explosiveness and agility that most observers thought were gone forever. The result is the Western Conference's answer to Boston's Kevin Garnett, an old man who isn't quite ready to start his Hall of Fame clock just yet.

"What he puts in his body is pretty impressive," Popovich said. "I wish I was half as disciplined. He's very lean, and it's helped him quickness-wise. I think the program that he's been on has helped him balance-wise and explosiveness-wise. He's done a wonderful job."

Duncan showed off his new body midway through the fourth quarter of Game 3 against the Clippers, when Blake Griffin tried to dunk on him and looked shocked when he had company near the rim. Duncan blocked the shot with his right hand, then -- per his norm -- remained expressionless.

Just as Martin grew to appreciate the Spurs in those times when an aging David Robinson was passing the black-and-gray baton to Duncan, San Antonio small forward Stephen Jackson has had an even closer look at Duncan's impact. Before Jackson would become known as one of the league's most volatile talents, he was a young player who formed the most unlikely of friendships with the low-key Duncan while with San Antonio from 2001-03. Jackson, who rejoined the Spurs midway through this season after a trade from Golden State, instantly respected Duncan because of his willingness to genuinely get to know his teammates.

"Tim saw my heart instead of the outside stuff, the loud, the obnoxious sometimes, the a--hole sometimes," he said. "Him just knowing me and knowing how much I love the game made it easier for us to be good friends and create an understanding."

This championship push isn't necessarily the Spurs' answer to the Alamo, a last stand like the one that appears to be happening in Boston, where 36-year-olds Garnett and Ray Allen have expiring contracts. Parker has three more seasons on his deal, while ace sixth man Manu Ginobili will be a free agent after next season. As for Duncan, who is making $21.3 million in the last year of his deal, he told Yahoo! Sports that he plans to return to the only place he's ever played, continuing to set the tone for a model franchise.

"The way he prepares, the way he focuses, keeps the same routine -- nothing has really changed since '03," Jackson said. "For him to be able to lead and not have that arrogant, star persona is special because it's easy for this team to win that way. The game has kind of gotten away from playing basketball the right way, and this is the right way."