Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Jester in Winter

by G. Scott 

Even among the Spurs' faithful, there are quiet concerns about their legendary anchor, Tim Duncan, and the rather un-Duncan like numbers he has put up at times this season. And although few will admit it, the specter of other legendary athletes who refused to go out at the top of their games looms over this season. Has Duncan finally reached that point in his career? Or are he and Gregg Popovich simply taking a page from former Spur Robert Horry's playbook and saving their best for the playoffs?

Maybe it's a little bit of both. Certainly one of the most obvious reasons that Duncan's numbers are down is that he is simply playing fewer minutes. But there are those nagging games this season where he seemed to struggle against the likes of Darko Milicic. And how could he pull down 18 rebounds one night but only 5 (with zero defensive boards) the next night?

The answer may be easiest to understand for the fans of professional golf, who have witnessed something similar over the years. Great golfers in the latter stages of their careers don't immediately lose the ability to play at a championship level. But they do begin to struggle to do so for an entire tournament. It's fairly common for aging stars to be leading a tournament after the first two days, but then on the third or the fourth day their performance is simply good, rather than spectacular. They still have incredible skills, and they still have the ability to hit dazzling shots. What they lose is the ability to put together four top-notch rounds in a row.

Tim Duncan may have reached the stage where some nights he is just very good, rather than spectacular. On his best nights, he will still put the team on his shoulders the way he has for so many years. On those other nights he will still be better than most players in the league, but he will need the help of his younger teammates. The good news is that basketball is a team sport, and Duncan has a lot of teammates who are capable of playing exceptional ball on any given night. That, and the fact that playoff matchups are 7 games, which means that he can have a couple of less-than-spectacular nights, and still win the series.

One thing that the golf analogy doesn't take into account is that a few legendary players seem not to be bound by the limitations of other mere mortals. The same iron-willed tenacity that allows them to dominate their sports while in their primes can sometimes allow them to turn back the clock later in their careers. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters when he was 46 years old. Tom Watson came within a single putt of winning the British open at the age of 59. (He finished tied for first, and lost in a playoff.) Both performances would have been unthinkable from any ordinary player, but from those two they were barely surprising.

Tim Duncan's status as a legendary performer is already secure. And while he may be in the latter stage of his career, it is still much more surprising for him to have 5 rebounds in a game, than for him to have 18. His numbers may be down a little, but he will be well rested and, hopefully, totally healthy when the playoffs start. Spurs faithful take heart: there will come a time when Duncan simply won't be up to the task of carrying the Spurs through another successful playoff run. But it won't be this season.

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