Duncan too busy to call it a career

By Jeff McDonald

Tim Duncan spent much of the NBA’s five-month lockout in much the same manner one might expect Tim Duncan to spend a five-month lockout.

When he wasn’t in the gym playing basketball, or on the track working on his conditioning, or in the weight room lifting, he was at home in his living room, playing with his two young children.

If the greatest power forward of his generation was supposed to spend the excess downtime soul-searching, reflecting on a career that, at age 35, is steadily steaming toward its end, well, nobody thought to inform Duncan.

Retirement? So soon?

“I haven’t gotten to that bridge,” Duncan said, at the dawn of his 15th Spurs training camp. “I don’t even see that bridge yet. When I get there, then I’ll cross it.”

In the final season of his contract, at an age when most players are being fitted for a rocking chair, Duncan can be sure he’ll hear similar questions at every NBA outpost he visits this season.

Odds are just as good he’ll give the same answer at each stop.

Those close to Duncan insist it isn’t just lip service. As long as his body holds up, they say, he really does envision his career proceeding beyond this year.

“I haven’t asked him, but I really don’t believe it’s going to be his last season,” said guard Manu Ginobili, Duncan’s teammate since 2002-03. “He is feeling good. He’s motivated. He loves the game.”

The way Duncan worked out during the prolonged offseason — like an over-caffeinated Richard Simmons, even when it appeared as if a canceled season might render his toil moot — seems to telegraph his intentions.

Duncan arrived at training camp last week in peak physical condition, right around 255 pounds, in a shape even coach Gregg Popovich called “incredible.”

“It seems like he comes back every year in better shape,” Popovich said. “I guess he realizes as you get older, you better make sure your body is as good as it can be.”

Though slowed by chronic knee problems, Duncan is coming off one of the more healthful seasons of his career’s third act. He played in 76 games, including the first 68 in a row, before a sprained ankle hobbled him heading into the playoffs.

No longer the focal point of the Spurs’ offense like he was during his back-to-back MVP heyday, Duncan averaged a career-low 13.5 points and 8.9 rebounds in a career-low 28 minutes, 23 seconds per game.

As the lockout dragged on, from summer to fall, Duncan worked to stay in some semblance of game shape. He has been playing at a lighter weight in recent seasons, keeping wear off his knees.

“I really didn’t get out of shape too badly and tried to stick with it,” Duncan said. “I hate getting out of shape and then trying to get back into shape.”

The compressed, 66-game season to come will present Duncan with one of the toughest challenges of his career. The Spurs are scheduled for 17 back-to-backs, and a pair of back-to-back-to-backs, as the NBA attempts to shoehorn the maximum number of games into four months.

Duncan was a 22-year-old, second-year player in 1999 when the league staged a condensed 50-game schedule following the last lockout.

“I was running up and down like a deer every day, and I wanted to play,” said Duncan, who will finally be the Spurs’ eldest statesman if 37-year-old Antonio McDyess doesn’t return. “This is going to feel a little different, I know it.”

For now, Duncan is focused only on the season ahead, and not what lies beyond.

Four seasons have passed since the last of his four NBA championships, the longest drought of his career. After a 61-win regular season, 2010-11 was shaping up to be the Spurs’ best shot at a title since sweeping Cleveland in the 2007 Finals, until Memphis ruined the party in the first round.

After the ouster, Duncan says he watched “about a quarter and a half” of the deciding game of last June’s Dallas-Miami NBA Finals. He arrived at camp last week steeled for another crack at the brass ring.

“We’re going to try to put it back together, try to get back on the floor and take another run at it,” Duncan said. “That’s what we’re here for.”

With so much work left to do, who has time for retirement?

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