Classic Duncan rewind keeps Spurs going strong

By Jeff McDonald

The brace strapped to Tim Duncan’s left knee has become a semi-permanent accoutrement, like an unwelcome piece of his wardrobe.

The Spurs’ power forward wears it on the court and often off of it, to play and to practice but also to watch cartoons with his kids.

There have been whispers in NBA circles about the level of degeneration in that knee, and questions about how many more years Duncan, less than two weeks from blowing out the candles on birthday No. 36, can continue to play on it.

Even on days when the pain is at its worst, Duncan’s teammates have never heard him complain — about the knee or any of the other natural aches that come with being a 30-something still toiling at a kids’ game.

“He’s not one that’s going to be crying about it,” guard Manu Ginobili said.

In the throes of his 15th NBA season, Duncan has been content to let his play serve as his daily medical report.

He says he is feeling well enough to make a run at a fifth NBA championship. And when it comes to Duncan, longtime teammates say, seeing is believing.

Just check the game tape.

“We’ve seen a few dunks in traffic lately,” Ginobili said. “He’s running in transition better. You can see he’s really feeling good.”

Since the All-Star break, Duncan is averaging close to 17 points and 10 rebounds. He has 30 dunks, already surpassing what he racked up in a full 82 games last season.

Duncan is coming off a 28-point, 12-rebound opus in Thursday’s victory over Memphis that rates as one of his top performances of the season.

It would be gross hyperbole to suggest that Duncan has at times resembled the two-time MVP winner from early last decade. But that hasn’t stopped some from suggesting it.

“Out of the last three years, this is the best I’ve seen him move and play,” said forward Stephen Jackson, a member of the Spurs’ 2003 title team. “He’s definitely showing flashes of the old Tim from when I was here last time.”

Duncan is in the final season of the contract extension he signed four months after the 2007 NBA Finals. He is not expected to meet with Spurs management to discuss his future plans until after the playoffs.

Heading down the home stretch of April — which continues tonight with a visit from a Phoenix team that has played foil for some of Duncan’s best games — the greatest player in Spurs history doesn’t appear to be in line for a retirement pension any time soon.

Like Suns point guard Steve Nash, on pace to again lead the NBA in assists at the overripe age of 38, Duncan is enjoying the fruits of a lockout-shortened campaign.

His numbers per 36 minutes — 19.2 points, 11.5 rebounds — are nearly identical to what he produced in 2005-06, at age 30.

“Timmy’s had a really fine year,” said coach Gregg Popovich, who calls it an oversight that Duncan was left off the All-Star team for the first time in his career. “(Against Memphis), he surpassed that. He stepped it up to a whole other level. He was phenomenal.”

It was a far cry from last April, when Duncan — hobbling through a failed playoff series against the Grizzlies on a bad knee and an ankle sprained late in the regular season — seemed a few weeks away from being fitted for a Rascal and AARP card.

This season, a refreshed Duncan has the Spurs within one victory of clinching their 18th division title and in position to claim the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the second straight season.

With Popovich meticulously rationing his minutes, and occasionally giving him a night off (once under the infamous heading of “DND-Old”), Duncan has discovered a fountain of youth.

“I feel good,” Duncan said. “I’ve felt good all year.”

His teammates believe him. No stranger to the injury list himself, Ginobili does not discount the mental value of playing pain free.

“That changes everything for a player,” Ginobili said. “When you are healthy, your head stops thinking about that and starts thinking about the game. That’s an important thing.”

For Duncan, there are still nine games left in the regular season, plus a playoff run to navigate.

After that, he will turn his attention toward next season. Though he hasn’t committed to anything, most expect Duncan — health willing — to delay retirement and re-up for another tour of duty with the only NBA team he has ever known.

For a few years now, Duncan has offered the same boilerplate response when asked the same inevitable question about how long he intends to keep playing:

“Until the wheels fall off.”

With his wheels firmly in place for now, Duncan keeps quietly rolling on.

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

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