Even for Duncan, such thing as too much rest

By Jeff McDonald

Tim Duncan made the long, slow shuffle across the Spurs’ practice facility Friday, twin bags of ice Ace-bandaged to his knees.

For a 36-year-old power forward in the midst of his 14th NBA postseason, this qualifies as routine post-practice maintenance.

It had been four days since the Spurs closed out their series with Utah. While waiting for Memphis and the L.A. Clippers to finish their first-round slap fight, the Spurs have held two spirited intrasquad scrimmages — complete with hired-gun officiating crews — but zero games.

“It’s been interesting,” Duncan said. “We’ve practiced hard, trying to keep our rhythm as much as possible. A little weird at this point in the season, but we’re excited to get the next series started. We hope (the wait) comes to an end soon.”

In terms of health, there is no player on the Spurs’ roster who has benefited more from the extended between-rounds break than Duncan. A fresher Duncan is a better Duncan. The numbers, not to mention common sense, bear that out.

Yet even when it comes to the Spurs’ oldest player, there is still such a thing as too much rest.

Throughout his career, Duncan has considered himself a “rhythm player.”

Knock him from his groove, he says, and it takes him a while to rediscover it. It’s a reason Duncan often bristles at coach Gregg Popovich’s attempts to sit him at various points in the regular season.

“I can lose it pretty quickly,” Duncan said.

A two-time league MVP in his prime, Duncan produced a solid first-round series against the Jazz — 14.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and nearly two blocks per game.

Whether the Western Conference semifinals bring Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies, or Blake Griffin, Kenyon Martin and the Clippers, the Spurs will need Duncan to pick up where he left off.

The sweet spot for Duncan appears to be two days rest. Afforded exactly that much time off in the regular season, Duncan averaged 17.5 points and shot 52.3 percent in 13 games. He also made 72 percent of his foul shots, 2.5 points higher than his season average and a telltale sign of fresh legs.

Playing on three days off or more, Duncan averaged 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds, but shot just 44.7 percent.

In hopes of striking a balance between rest and too much rest, Popovich has pushed his team through every-other-day scrimmages over the past four days.

“We just want to keep our rhythm and keep our conditioning as best we can,” Popovich said.

The last time Duncan faced a hiatus as long as this one — five days off during the All-Star break — it took him a few games to find his groove.

The first game back, a home loss to Chicago, Duncan had 18 points and 10 rebounds but made just 8 of 21 shots. Two nights later, in a home victory over Charlotte, Duncan produced a 14-point, eight-rebound line and went 6 of 17.

How long might it take Duncan to return to basketball form once the playoffs resume for the Spurs?

“It all depends,” he said, chuckling. “If things go good, a little while. If things don’t go good, a little longer.”

In the meantime, Duncan and the Spurs have used the inflated break to work out what few kinks remain in a team that appeared well-oiled in the first round. Specifically, Duncan is working on his chemistry with recently acquired big man Boris Diaw, who joined the team in late March and was named the starting center just before the playoffs.

The Duncan-Diaw pairing has proven surprisingly sturdy on defense. As soon as Duncan gets accustomed to Diaw’s pass-first mentality on offense, the two should look more fine-tuned on that end of the floor as well.

“We’ve got to figure out when he takes shots and when he doesn’t,” Duncan said. “All in all, he’s a smart basketball player, and we’re happy to have him. I’m still surprised by a lot of what he does.”

More than once in the Spurs’ first-round series, Diaw threw a nifty pass that sailed by an unsuspecting Duncan. It happened again in Friday’s scrimmage.

“They’re still trying to learn each other,” point guard Tony Parker said. “That’s why these practices are good.”

Still, for the sake of building playoff rhythm, there is no substitute for playing playoff games.

Duncan is as eager as anyone to see what kind of groove he is in once the Spurs’ postseason resumes. The sooner, the better.

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

Game 1: @Spurs, Tuesday, 8:30 p.m., TNT
Game 2: @Spurs, Thursday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN
Game 3: @Clippers/Grizzlies, TBA, TBA
Game 4: @Clippers/Grizzlies, TBA, TBA
*Game 5: @Spurs, TBA, TBA
*Game 6: @Clippers/Grizzlies, TBA, TBA
*Game 7: @Spurs, TBA, TBA
* if necessary

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