Tim Duncan isn't just timeless. He is Timeless. He is Timeless Duncan. Back in the NBA Finals for the sixth time at age 38, Duncan has earned "Timeless" as a nickname and not simply an adjective.
Drafted by the San Antonio Spurs with the No. 1 overall selection in the 1997 NBA Draft, the reserved but relentless post player from the U.S. Virgin Islands by way of Wake Forest quickly distinguished himself by playing with the unflappable poise of a veteran and an exacting knowledge of angles befitting a geometry teacher. In college, his calm demeanor led Duke students to jeer him as "Spock." In the NBA, his placid power helped him become a difference maker immediately. The ability to tally points, rebounds and blocked shots at an astounding pace helped, too.
"I have seen the future, and he wears No. 21," NBA legend Charles Barkley said after getting an early glimpse of Duncan in 1997.
The near-unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year after his debut campaign, Duncan quickly emerged as a dominant force in the NBA. He joined Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal and Gary Payton as a 1st Team All-NBA selection. While Barkley looked at Duncan and saw the future, others looked at him and saw throwback to the game's more terrestrial and regimented past. O'Neal, the NBA's foremost distributor of nicknames, would go on to describe Duncan as "The Big Fundamental" for his precision and efficiency.
In his sophomore season, Duncan and veteran teammate David Robinson led the Spurs to the franchise's first NBA Finals appearance and its first championship. With these Twin Towers controlling the paint, the Spurs tied for the best regular-season record, 37-13, in the lockout-shortened 1998-1999 campaign. The Spurs defeated Kevin Garnett and the Minnesota Timberwolves in the opening round of the playoffs, sent home O'Neal's Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals and swept Rasheed Wallace's Portland Trail Blazers to clinch a spot in the 1999 NBA Finals.
In an MVP-worthy performance, the 6-11 post powerhouse averaged 27.4 points, 14 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.2 blocked shots per game as the Spurs rolled over the New York Knicks in five games.
"Getting ready for them, watching a lot of film, he's obviously the best player in the NBA," Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy raved after his team was defeated. "Not just because of his skill level. I think his maturity, knowledge of the game, that he cares just about winning. You can just watch a guy play and know if he's truly into winning."
At age 23 and already at the top of his profession, Duncan struck a humbler tone than many players in his position might have. There was no repeat title boast about how many championship rings he would win for San Antonio.
“It’s a blessing to do what we did, and there’s no guarantee we’ll ever get back here,” Duncan said after his first career championship.
Like the Terminator (perhaps an untapped nickname), Duncan would be back and his demeanor would be unchanged. The Spurs would return to the NBA Finals three times during the next decade. In 2003, the Spurs dispatched the New Jersey Nets in six games.
"He's not throwing behind-the-back passes, he's not doing tomahawk jams, he's not doing anything that's very flashy," Byron Scott, who coached the Nets in the 2003 NBA Finals, said of Duncan's style and impact. "He's just a very unassuming guy who goes about his job, and the next thing you know he's got 23 points and 20 rebounds, like it's a normal day at the job."
In 2005, the Spurs edged the Detroit Pistons in seven games. By age 29, Duncan was already three-time NBA champion and a three-time NBA Finals MVP.
"His complete game is so sound, so fundamental, so unnoticed at times, because if he didn't score, people think, 'Well, he didn't do anything,'" Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after Game 7 in 2005. "But he was incredible and he was the force that got it done for us."
In 2007, it was LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers representing the Eastern Conference against the Spurs in the NBA Finals. James, a freshman in high school when the Spurs lifted the Larry O'Brien Trophy in 1999, put up a valiant effort in the four-game sweep but Duncan's side prevailed. He averaged 18.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.3 blocks per game yet teammate Tony Parker earned MVP honors.
"When Tim Duncan was a rookie, I said he was the most efficient player in the league at the time," Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell wrote during the 2007 NBA Finals. "In watching him play, he has the least wasted motion and emotion. He is terribly, terribly efficient. Everything he does had a purpose. I love watching him."
The 11-time NBA champion may have loved the ruthlessly effective way Duncan operated but fans were not always as appreciative. Duncan, whose game was known more for bank shots than slam dunks, and the Spurs were labeled as boring. In an age of high-flying athletes who played, spoke and even dressed for postgame press conferences with flair and bombast, the Spurs' monotone and monochrome consistency was viewed as dull -- albeit effective -- antique left over from another age.
Duncan celebrated his 31st birthday during the 2007 NBA Playoffs but neither he nor the Spurs would fade into mediocrity. San Antonio remained a perennial playoff presence with Duncan on the wrong side of 30 and has finished in first place in the Southwest Division in five of the seven seasons since that fourth championship of the Duncan Era. In the two other years, the Spurs finished in second place in the division. Duncan's numbers would begin to dip as he ceded the spotlight to teammates like Parker, Manu Ginobli and later Kawhi Leonard but he would remain the impassive face of the Spurs.
For one season, Father Time appeared to get inside position on Duncan but even he couldn't not hold it for long. The 2010-2011 season was statistically the worst of Duncan's Hall of Fame-caliber run in the NBA, with career-low averages in points, 13.4, and rebounds, 8.9. He would still start 76 games and help the Spurs to 61 regular-season wins and another division title. As the top seed in the Western Conference Playoffs, the Spurs were ousted by the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the opening round. Duncan turned 35 during the six-game series.
In response to having such a down year by his lofty standards, Duncan dropped approximately 20 pounds heading into the 2011-2012 season. With the NBA playing a condensed 66-game schedule following a work stoppage, Popovich made sure to schedule adequate rest for his aging stars. In a refreshingly honest and hilarious moment in March 2012, with the Spurs playing games on three straight nights, Duncan was held out of a game and listed as DND-Old. Right there in the box score, Popovich revealed that his all-time great did not dress for the game because he was old.
Even from the bench Duncan made his presence felt, picking up a technical foul for questioning the officiating during the Spurs' win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
"I appreciated it," Ginobili said of Duncan's tech. "I think Pop didn't. But it's good when you see your franchise player, even when he's not playing, stick with his team and support and cheer for them. He's a great leader, and we respect that."
Three months later, the relatively rested Spurs would reach the Western Conference Finals and jump out to a 2-0 series lead over the up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder. With the young trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden leading the way, the Thunder would rally to win four straight to reach the 2012 NBA Finals.
"I thought this was definitely our time," Duncan said after a series-ending loss in Game 6. "A time to get back to the Finals. A time to push for another championship."
The Thunder's comeback and series win was widely viewed as a changing of the guard in the West. It wasn't. The Spurs would represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals in the next two seasons.
Early in the 2012-2013 NBA season, TNT analyst Reggie Miller, whose career overlapped with Duncan's for eight seasons, referred to the Spurs stalwart "Old Man Riverwalk" during a broadcast. While geographically apt for a player who has spent his entire career to that point in San Antonio, that nickname didn't quite do justice to Duncan's ability to still impact a game starring much younger men. Not simply supportng his teammates in a rocking chair at the end of the bench, Duncan started 69 games during the 2012-2013 campaign -- the second-highest total on the team -- as the Spurs rolled to another division title. He averaged 17.8 points and 9.9 rebounds per game that season. Those numbers are well below his career-best per-game averages in those categories of 25.5 points and 12.9 rebounds, but his per-36-minute averages from that season of 21.3 points and 11.9 rebounds compare far more favorably to his career-best, per-36-minute averages in those categories, 22.6 and 12.4. Not only had Duncan rebounded from his struggles during the 2010-2011 campaign but he had even found a way to improve a longstanding weak spot in his nearly flawless game: In his 16th season, Duncan shot the best free-throw percentage of his entire career (82%).
With a resurgent Duncan still integral to the game plan, the Spurs returned to the Western Conference Finals yet again. They would face the Grizzlies and sweep them aside with four straight wins to return to the NBA Finals after a six-year absence. As they did in 2007, the Spurs would contend with King James in the 2013 NBA Finals.
"It's tough to do, to maintain something that long," Popovich told reporters when asked for his thoughts on returning to the Finals after eliminating the Grizzlies. "But it just shows the character of [Duncan, Parker and Ginobli] and their ability to play with whoever else is brought in around them. They deserve a lot of credit for that."
With Duncan going off for 20 and 14 in Game 1 against James and the Miami Heat, the Spurs would take a 1-0 series lead. The teams would then trade wins over the next four games, giving the Spurs a chance to clinch the title in Game 6. With just seconds remaining in that sixth game, the Spurs led 95-92 and were on the verge of winning the fifth championship of the Duncan Era. Having tallied 30 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in 44 minutes of action, Duncan was on the bench when James launched an three-point errant shot in the closing seconds. With Duncan nowhere near the rim, Heat forward Chris Bosh grabbed the offensive rebound and got the ball to Ray Allen. The veteran sharpshooter caught the pass, set his feet in the corner and drained the game-tying three-point shot with 5.2 seconds remaining.
In overtime, the Heat outscored the Spurs 8-5 for an unforgettable 103-100 win. Buoyed by Allen's series-extending heroics, the Heat would clinch its second-straight NBA championship with a win in Game 7.
"Just give credit to the Miami Heat. LeBron was unbelievable. Dwyane was great. I just think they found a way to get it done," Duncan said after the crushing 95-88 loss in Game 7. "We stayed in the game. We gave ourselves opportunities to win the game. We just couldn't turn that corner."
The Spurs followed their disappointing, come-from-ahead Finals loss to the Heat by steamrolling to a league-best 62-20 record during the 2013-2014 regular season. Duncan started a team-high 74 games during the season and ranked second on the team in scoring, behind Parker, with 15.1 points per game and first on the team in rebounding with 9.7 boards per game. Duncan opened the 2014 postseason with a vintage performance against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, pouring in 27 points and pulling down seven rebounds to lift the Spurs to a 90-85 win In the opener of that best-of-seven series
"Timmy, he's not going to score 24 a game or anything like that," Popovich said after the Game 1 win. "He's the base from which everything else occurs, whether he's scoring or not. It just gives us a comfort level and a point from which to operate. He plays (defense), rebounds, scores here and there. He just does his job."
Duncan would not put up 24 points per night during the postseason but he would remain the fulcrum of the Spurs' offense and defense. With the Duncan contributing 16.5 points per playoff game, the Spurs needed seven games to overcome the Mavericks but would then cruise past the Trail Blazers in five games to set up another meeting with the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. Once again, the Spurs jumped out to a 2-0 lead. Once again, Thunder answered with two straight wins. Unlike in 2012, the Spurs stemmed the tide with a Game 5 win. In that pivotal contest, Duncan led the Spurs in points, 22, and rebounds, 12. The Spurs would eliminate the Thunder in Game 6 to return to the NBA Finals and get another crack at James and the Heat.
"It's unbelievable to regain that focus after that devastating loss that we had last year," Duncan said after the Spurs eliminated Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2014 Western Conference finals. "But we're back here. We're excited about it. We've got four more to win. We'll do it this time."
With Duncan and the Spurs, there is always reason to believe that they will do it this time. Even more impressively, there is always reason to believe that they can also do it next time.