Future Hall of Famer. Five-time NBA champion, with the prospect of No. 6 squarely in his sights. Proud father. Man of perspective and — for all those aforementioned reasons and more — complete and utter contentment.
As if it’s not bad enough for his contemporaries that he’s hoarding all the hardware and playing as if it’s 1999, the San Antonio Spurs legend has reached a point of his one-of-a-kind career that few are lucky enough to enjoy. He is, as he confirmed after the 111-107 Game 5 win over the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on Tuesday night, playing with house money.
“I’m enjoying it, man,” Duncan told USA TODAY Sports as he casually walked through the Staples Center halls after the Spurs regained control of the first-round series with a 3-2 lead. “I don’t feel pressure. I’m enjoying myself, and whatever that translates from or to, that’s what it is. I’ve got the house’s money, so I’m just kind of enjoying it.”
In between all those highlight-reel moments that led to his 21-point, 11-rebound, four-assist, three-steal night, there were less-obvious revelations that said everything about the state of mind he’s in these days. The Cheshire grin he wore when official Scott Foster caught him eavesdropping on a Clippers huddle, with the playful and poised Duncan not afraid to acknowledge his own detective work. The courtside chats he kept having with Clippers players during breaks in the action, with his foes not nearly as calm or collected as the seemingly-ageless 39-year-old.
The contrast between Duncan, circa 2014, and the present-day version has quickly become apparent in these playoffs, and it has everything to do with the weight of his world that was lifted last June. When the Spurs avenged their 2013 Finals loss to the Miami Heat by downing Lebron James & Co. in their rematch, the fire that burned inside one of the game’s greatest big men didn’t die so much as it changed.
He was the first to admit a year ago that his desire was different, that the Heat had left the kind of wounds that simply had to be healed. But this is not that, and the unfair part as it pertains to the Clippers is that their collective heads couldn’t be in a more vastly different place right now.
Angst and anxiety appear to be ruling the day in Doc Rivers’ world, as Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan continue to find ways to come oh-so-close to felling this black and silver giant. The significance of their story is in serious jeopardy here, the entertaining Lob City group having failed in each of the last three postseasons and having every reason to press right now. Then there’s Duncan, care-free, confident and compelling as he has ever been.
Jordan’s mishap on the offensive goaltending call with four seconds left will most certainly get the majority of the attention, but the truth is that Duncan’s defense on Griffin down the stretch was the death knell that did the Clippers in.
Griffin, a five-time All-star, missed 12 of his 15 shots in the second half and was 1-of-9 in the fourth quarter, with Duncan guarding him for much of that time. The signature play came with 59 seconds left, when the uber-athletic Griffin drove the lane and was rejected by Duncan in the kind of way that defied all matters of physics and physique. Griffin finished with 30 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists but hit just 10-of-25 shots and had five turnovers.
“His timing is just impeccable,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He has a hard time jumping over the proverbial piece of paper, and he gets in position. He knows where to be. He’s played long enough. He’s got a great basketball IQ, and he has excellent timing, so he reads things well.
“This is really the first time he’s guarded Blake was tonight, so for a pretty good portion of the game he guarded him, and he did a great job. … That might have been the play of the game when he blocked that shot.”
Said Spurs swingman Manu Ginobili: “TD is savvy, knows where to be in each situation. He had a huge block down the stretch against him (Griffin) — very, very important. He’s reliable. The guy has been here for a million years and a million games, and he understands the game very well.”
What he understands above all else, though, is that time is of the essence. Duncan won’t tip his hand on whether or not he’ll retire this summer, but he’s long since reached the point of appreciation and reflection when it comes to his own legacy.
On the one hand, Popovich has said before that he believes Duncan will keep playing so long as he can get the job done. In that regard, he may as well play until his 50th birthday is within striking distance. On the other hand, it can’t really get much better than this.
“I’m trying to enjoy myself, whatever that means,” he said during his postgame news conference. “I know it’s coming to an end, whether — whenever that time is — so I’m enjoying myself. I’m enjoying the time out here and the crowd, the energy, the situation. And if that translates into something different, that’s something different.”