Duncan shows plenty spring left in step

By Jeff McDonald

Eighty-six seconds into Wednesday’s game against Minnesota, 35-year-old Tim Duncan slipped a screen near the top of the key, took a perfect pass from Tony Parker and, in a hiccup, dunked on the Timberwolves’ Wesley Johnson.

“Amazing,” Manu Ginobili marveled later. “He didn’t need 20 minutes to warm up.”

For almost as long as Duncan has been on the team, his lack of verticality has been a running joke in the Spurs’ locker room.

As March wears on, however, Duncan has been doing his best to dunk holes in that old “Virgin Islanders Can’t Dunk” meme.

There was his four-dunk game against Denver, which included a poster-ization of Chris “Birdman” Andersen.

There was a three-slam night against Washington, which included a coast-to-coast drive-and-dunk that, fittingly, pushed Duncan past Clyde Drexler on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

There was the loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, when Duncan matched KIA-hopping Blake Griffin dunk for dunk.

“It’s great to see him that fresh and that good,” Ginobili said. “It makes you feel optimistic.”

In one of the more unexplainable phenomena of the lockout-compressed season, Duncan actually appears to be getting fresher as time moves along.

“Tim’s been really fresh all year long,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “I’m enthused about his health.

“He’s got quickness and more agility than he’s had in a while.”

A few weeks ago, Popovich described the 14-year veteran as “spry” — a word typically reserved for 80-year-old retirees who still make their weekly shuffleboard games.

In Duncan’s case, it fits.

Though playing minutes almost identical to last season, the power forward’s scoring average is up more than a point from last season to 14.3 points per game.

His rebounding average — 8.9 per game — is identical.

Since February began, Duncan is averaging 16.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and nearly two blocks.

“From watching him last year to now, he definitely looks like the old Tim Duncan,” said Stephen Jackson, who last played with Duncan when he was winning consecutive MVPs.

“To get where we want to be, we’re going to need him to play like that.”

Tonight, the Spurs host the reigning NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, marking not only the beginning of their first back-to-back-to-back set of the season, but also the first of five games in six nights.

Duncan is almost certainly due a day of rest soon, as are the 34-year-old Ginobili and 29-year-old Parker, who left Wednesday’s game before halftime with a tight hamstring.

As the Spurs learned with Duncan last season, it only takes one ill-timed twist of the ankle to ruin a season’s worth of fitness.

In the playoffs last year, a hobbled Duncan was left to tangle with Memphis’ twin beasts, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, on one leg.

For now, Duncan says he feels fresh, and there’s no reason to disbelieve him.

“I feel good,” said Duncan, who has skipped only two of the Spurs’ 44 games. “I’ve felt good all season long.”

One sign Duncan is feeling, ahem, “spry:” He’s dunking the ball both with authority and regularity.

Duncan has logged 12 dunks in March alone, after recording 17 in an entire 82-game slate. He has totaled 23 this season, with still a ways to go to catch Griffin (127) or Dwight Howard (124), but only one behind backup center Tiago Splitter for the Spurs’ team lead.

Duncan attributes his surge in slams to the Spurs’ guards, who he says are doing a nice job of finding him on the pick-and-roll.

In a sense, his nightly jam session could be a side effect of Parker’s career year handing out assists.

“He’s making all the right decisions,” Duncan said, “and we have great shooters on the perimeter, which opens up the middle for me.

“They have to respect our shooters, they have to respect Tony — and I’m the other guy.”

To be the last team standing, however, the Spurs need Duncan to be more than just some guy. They need him to be the guy he’s been for most of the past two months — fresh, nimble and, yes, spry.

Game by game, dunk by dunk, Duncan is giving the Spurs added reason for hope.

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

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