By Jeff McDonald
Maybe it’s the creak in his knees, warning him that the end is near. Maybe it’s the cold hand of Father Time on his back, nudging him toward the door.
Maybe Tim Duncan believes what the rest of the NBA seems to, that the Spurs’ title window is closing, if it hasn’t been slammed shut and padlocked already. There is a prevailing notion the playoff run that begins today against Memphis might be the venerable Spurs captain’s last good chance to pursue a fifth championship ring.
And maybe it is.
“Until the next one,” Duncan said. “Every year, we’re given our last chance. We’ll take this one as it is.”
On the precipice of another playoff, with the Spurs owning a No. 1 seed so unexpected their head coach never saw it coming, Duncan doesn’t deny a heightened sense of urgency.
In NBA years, the two-time MVP is straddling a line between older and old. He will turn 35 before the end of the first round, with a contract that might be wiped out by the league’s looming labor impasse.
If retirement isn’t imminent, Duncan can see the Barcalounger from here.
“Every game, every playoff run, everything is special right now,” Duncan said. “I’m not taking anything for granted.”
If these playoffs represent Duncan’s final last chance, it is a good one.
For the first time since 2006, the Spurs enter as the Western Conference’s top seed, ahead of the two-time defending champion L.A. Lakers, by virtue of a 61-21 record that was the second-best of Duncan’s 14 seasons.
It is something few could have imagined a year ago, when the Spurs struggled to a seventh-place finish they did well to parlay into a second-round playoff exit.
“I don’t think there’s anybody, in or out of the league, that thought this team would be the first seed in the West,” coach Gregg Popovich said.
As they head into Game 1 against the eighth-seeded Grizzlies at the ATT Center, the Spurs’ prime motivation is simply to not muck up what they’ve already earned.
Already, they have been reminded how tenuous a successful playoff run can be, with guard Manu Ginobili listed as doubtful for Game 1 with a sprained right elbow.
“Our window is closing,” said Tony Parker, the 10th-year point guard and Duncan’s sidekick for three titles. “I really feel like it’s our last chance to really do something.”
Before the season, with so much in doubt and a seventh-place roster a year older, Popovich for the first time distilled his goals to their most basic.
“We really were just hoping to make the playoffs,” Popovich said.
Now the Spurs can, with a straight face, talk about making a run for their first championship since 2007.
As they have for 12 postseasons, much of the Spurs’ hopes rest with Duncan, the Finals MVP in 1999, 2003 and 2005.
Duncan was at times a forgotten man during the regular season — as forgotten as a future first-ballot Hall of Famer can be — as Popovich capped his minutes to career lows. Duncan’s scoring (13.4 points per game) and rebounding (8.9 per game) dipped in tandem.
The object was to keep mileage off Duncan’s rising odometer, to keep him fresh for the playoffs. Now that they are here, Duncan’s teammates expect the All-Star to again be at the center of their game plan.
“Every time we play in the playoffs, Timmy’s going to be very aggressive,” Parker said. “You can see Pop call more plays for him. We’re definitely going to use him more.”
Duncan arrived here nearly 14 years ago, by lucky bounce of a lottery ball, to a small-market city he had never before considered. With the raising of four championship banners, he transformed one of the NBA’s hardest-luck outposts into an unexpected keeper of the basketball flame.
Beyond these playoffs, there is no telling what Duncan’s basketball future holds. If next season is completely erased by lockout, Duncan will stand to lose $21.2 million due the final year of his contract, more than any player in the league.
He will also stand to lose time, and that’s one commodity an NBA player in his mid-30s cannot replace.
So if this is it, if this playoff run is indeed Duncan’s final last stand, it is only fitting he makes it with the ball in his hands.
“We’ve been blessed,” Duncan said. “We’ve had a good run. Hopefully, we can make another one.”