Tim Duncan walked out of the visitor’s locker room at Staples Center and stopped to chat with Chris Paul after the San Antonio Spurs completed their four-game annihilation of the Los Angeles Clippers last week. But the conversation kept getting interrupted so that Duncan could joke around with Paul’s 2-year-old son, Chris.
Duncan asked the younger Paul to show him his muscles and the kid flexed proudly. He then laughed as Chris Jr. answered questions from his father about what number Duncan wears (“21”) and what college he plans to attend (“Wake Forest”).
The playful ease with which Duncan interacted with the toddler may come as a surprise to those who consider him to be the most dull superstar to lace them up. But in many ways, Duncan is having the same effectiveness playing basketball this season against a new generation of big men who were barely in elementary school when he first came into the league.
Duncan, 36, came back with something to prove after a season in which the Spurs were eliminated from the first round by Memphis and he recorded the worst statistical season of his career. It has helped San Antonio get back to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in four years.
“A lot of people messed up saying he was old last year,” Spurs reserve Stephen Jackson said about Duncan, as San Antonio prepares to host the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1 on Sunday at AT&T Center. “He worked his butt off this summer to play the way he’s playing now.”
Duncan changed his offseason program to get in better shape and take some pressure off his achy knees. The result has been a player with much more lift and explosion, which he displayed when he rejected a dunk attempt by the Clippers’ 23-year-old high-flying all-star forward Blake Griffin in the conference semifinals — though Duncan was modest in his description of the play.
“I think I got him on the way up. That’s the only chance I have,” Duncan said with a laugh.
Duncan certainly looks as if he can effectively play a few more years at a high level. How much longer is anyone’s guess. “I don’t have that kind of crystal ball,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said.
Popovich can’t be expected to know how much longer Duncan can lead professional sports’ most consistently successful franchise of the past 15 years when he surely had no idea that their union would yield so many accolades for both of them. Since the Spurs lucked into landing Duncan with the No. 1 pick in 1997, no player-coach tandem has more playoff victories (184), more regular season wins (792) or a better winning percentage (.713). And, they are now eight wins from claiming their fifth NBA championship together.
“I’m incredibly fortunate,” said Duncan, who won the first of back-to-back most valuable player awards 10 years ago. “I understand the situation I’m in. It doesn’t happen for a lot of people. The organization, the players, the coach. In every respect, I’ve been blessed. I understand it everyday and I appreciate it everyday.”
Popovich won coach of the year honors for the second time, but he has always deflected praise in the direction of Duncan, whom he credits for the incredible run. “I’ve got one hand hanging on his coat tail,” Popovich said. “He just keeps dragging me around wherever he goes. Every time I walk around the house, about once a month, I tell my wife, ‘Say, ‘Thank you, Tim.’ And I’m serious.”