Duncan may return by April

By Jeff McDonald

DENVER — Though the Spurs have yet to release an official timetable for Tim Duncan’s return from an ankle sprain, coach Gregg Popovich said Wednesday the two-time MVP could be back on the floor by the beginning of April.

Asked before the Spurs’ game against Denver if two weeks sounded like a plausible prognosis for Duncan, Popovich sounded optimistic his captain might be back sooner.

“I’m hoping it won’t be that long, a good four or five games for sure,” Popovich said. “Beyond that, I really won’t know until we get back.”

Duncan, who injured his left ankle Monday against Golden State, did not accompany the Spurs on their three-game road trip, instead remaining behind in San Antonio in a walking boot. An MRI conducted Tuesday confirmed the sprain and revealed no structural damage in Duncan’s ankle.

“Once he gets back on the court in a couple of days, we’ll be able to tell more,” Popovich said. “But four or five games for sure.”

By that estimate, Duncan could be back for the Spurs’ ?? final seven regular-season games, beginning April 1 at Houston.

Asked again Wednesday if team doctors had given any indication Duncan might miss the start of the playoffs, Popovich said, “No, no, no.”

SPLITTER STARTS: With Duncan shelved, rookie center Tiago Splitter earned his second career start, earning the nod over DeJuan Blair, who started the first 63 games of the season before moving to the bench earlier this month.

The deciding factor was height. Splitter is 6-foot-11, while Blair is 6-7.

“We’re a pretty small team,” Popovich said. “We’ve got to have some size on the court.”

Blair came off the bench Wednesday after missing the Golden State game with a sprained left wrist.

THE RING LEADER: Spurs guard Danny Green doesn’t have so much as a job guaranteed past the end of the season, but he does have something nobody else in the Spurs locker room does: an NCAA championship ring.

Green started for the North Carolina team that won the 2009 title, along with fellow future NBA players Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Tyler Hansbrough. He keeps his ring in a lock box at home and knows better than to crow about his accomplishments on a team that features four players with NBA championship hardware.

“I can’t brag around these guys,” Green said. “They’ve got some big-time guys here.”

This year’s version of March Madness, meanwhile, has drawn battle lines in the Spurs’ locker room. Green’s Tar Heels will face Steve Novak’s former school, Marquette, in a Sweet 16 game Friday, while Richard Jefferson’s Arizona team will face assistant coach Chip Engelland’s Duke Blue Devils tonight.

“I feel like March Madness, even if you haven’t won a ring, is a fun time for guys,” Green said. “Guys like to fill out brackets and watch our teams play. We have our little battles and arguments and inside friendly bets. It’s a good time to watch basketball.”

The only other Spurs with alma maters still alive in the tournament are Matt Bonner (Florida) and assistant coach Jacque Vaughn (Kansas).

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