History came calling early for Tim Duncan two Fridays ago at the AT&T Center, where less than two minutes into a contest with the upstart Houston Rockets, Duncan drained an open jumper to notch points 20,000 and 20,001 of his storied NBA career. The raucous crowd serenaded a subdued Duncan with a standing ovation, leaving at least one Houston player with the impression that Eva Longoria Parker had just entered the building. Despite Duncan’s milestone, the Spurs fell to the Rockets 116-109; fans and pundits alike wondered if the greatest power forward in the history of the game will ever return to its grandest stage and claim his fifth championship ring.
Earlier that week, NBA fans voted Duncan to his 11th consecutive All-Star Game start, yet another mind-bending accomplishment for the future Hall of Famer. Duncan edged out Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki with a whopping 1,156,696 votes, joining the likes of Bob Cousy, Julius Erving, Oscar Robertson, and yes, Kobe Bryant, as the only other players so overwhelmingly voted into the mid-season classic. Nowitzki recently cracked the 20,000-point plateau as well, although his milestone was accented with an animated fist pump befitting a player whose most memorable accomplishments have come almost solely on an individual level.
Has it really been almost 12 years since May 18, 1997, the fateful day the Spurs won the draft lottery for the rights to select Duncan, effectively transforming a franchise and turning Gregg Popovich, a man who never even played in the league, into a Hall of Fame coach? Like many in San Antonio, I remember exactly where I was when Timmy fell into our laps, which coincidentally is the last time I recall emphatically jumping on the bed. Four championships later, and Duncan still endures, posting numbers and displaying effort that conjure memories of his back-to-back MVP campaigns.
Coming into this NBA season, much of the hype focused on the reloaded Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, and San Antonio Spurs, with plenty of speculation on whether Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, or Tim Duncan would be the first to capture ring number five. Now that the NBA season has reached its midpoint, it appears that the Cavs and Lakers are on another level, the Magic are struggling, and the Spurs are a frustrating disappointment.
After the loss to the Rockets, Richard Jefferson, perhaps the poster child for the Spurs’ futility this season, reflected on the team’s troubles.
“We all know at this point in time, being professionals, what’s expected of us, where we need to be, the things that Coach expects from us,” Jefferson told assembled reporters. “We know the things that it’s going to take for us to be successful as a team. There’s no excuses. There’s no, still trying to learn each other or any of that. You’re dealing with that in the first 25-30 games of the season, but at this point in time we know what it takes to be successful.”
Which brings us back to Duncan and his welcome return to MVP form. With Tony Parker suffering from plantar fasciitis, Manu Ginobili playing without a new contract, and Popovich doing his best Don Nelson impersonation, Duncan has not gotten the support he needs to reach the NBA Finals, let alone get out of the postseason first round. In recent history, the Spurs have relied on their annual rodeo road-trip to build chemistry and cohesion, but one wonders if this year will have the same effect. The Spurs are now 25-19, currently good enough to merit 5th place in the Western Conference, with an 8-9 record on the road.
Barring a major team turnaround on the defensive end of the floor, as native Texan and former Knick Micheal Ray Richardson might say, when it comes to Timmy and trophy number five, the window be closing. •