Coming off a three-game absence – one for rest and two due to knee soreness – the no-brainer Hall of Famer played just 13 minutes Saturday, missing all three of his shots and failing to get to the line.
And it was no coincidence that in the same game, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard picked up the slack with 24 and 22 points, respectively, in a rout of the discombobulated Houston Rockets. They are the faces of the future for the Spurs and appear totally ready to carry the load that the 39-year-old Duncan has been shouldering on some level for nearly two decades.
“It’s very unusual, of course,” said Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, no spring chicken himself. “But he didn’t play much. He hadn’t played in a week. If he’s playing until he’s 48, I guess he’s gonna have that a couple more times.”
When Duncan first came on board in 1997, he played alongside Hall of Famer David Robinson in a “Twin Towers” alignment. They dominated on both ends of the floor, and the defensive-minded Spurs put enough around them – remember Jaren Jackson? Speedy Claxton? Steve Kerr? – to win titles in 1999 and 2003.
Robinson retired after that second championship season, but by that time Ginobili and Parker had arrived. Still in his prime, Duncan remained the fulcrum, but the Spurs tweaked the offense, looking to run more and using a perimeter-based attack with stretch forwards and small lineups.
Gradually, there became less of a reliance on Duncan, perhaps best illustrated by San Antonio’s next two championships. In 2005, Ginobili had a very strong argument to be Finals MVP for his Game 7 performance against Detroit. In 2007, Parker won Finals MVP as he sped past anyone Cleveland tried to put in front of him.
By that time, Duncan had played 11 years and was 31 years old. But his minutes had gone from a career-high 40.6 per game in his first MVP season of 2001-02 to 34.1 in 2006-07 to 28.2 in 2011-12 — the season Leonard arrived. The Spurs were now an offensive team, racing upcourt, playing on the perimeter and leading the NBA in 3-point percentage.
Leonard emerged as a star with his Finals MVP in 2014, alleviating more of the burden on Duncan. But with Parker and Ginobili also in their 30s, the Spurs knew they needed another star alongside Leonard.
So they went all in on Aldridge, and for the first time since Duncan’s second contract in 2000, they handed out a max deal. Two, in fact – one to Aldridge, securing him through possibly 2019, and another to Leonard, locking him up through perhaps 2020.
And with Aldridge alongside Duncan, both the offense and defense are coming full circle back to the “Twin Towers” days. According to teamrankings.com, the Spurs are third this season in percentage of points on 2-pointers. They had not been higher than 14th and were as low as 24th over the previous four seasons. The Spurs also are 23rd in fast-break points this season after finishing between eighth and 14th from 2010-14. And while they were basically a middle-10 team in opponents’ shooting this decade, they are up to second this season.
“We’ve tried to become more of an inside-out team,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “We were a perimeter team for a few years, now we’re sort of shifting back to an inside-out team.”
Here’s how the transition away from Duncan is going: The Spurs are 29-6 and just four games in the loss column behind the headine-grabbing, record-setting Golden State Warriors.
They are second in 3-point shooting (.382) and assists (25.3).
They lead the league in points allowed (89.0) defensive rebound percentage (.808) and victory margin (13.6).
They have yet to lose at home, winning their first 20 games at the AT&T Center.
“They were the Spurs like the way the Spurs always play,” Rockets forward Corey Brewer said after Saturday’s game. “They run their stuff crisp, and if you don’t guard them the right way, they’re going to get easy layups and easy shots.”
“If you make one mistake, it’s over,” Denver Nuggets guard Randy Foye said. “We’re talking about Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker being together for 13 years, but even the new guys, you make one mistake … You try to deny someone, it’s a backdoor. You go under, it’s a three. You go over the top, it’s a 2-on-1 going downhill. That team is good.”
Leonard leads San Antonio in scoring at 20.8 points and leads the league in 3-point shooting at .496. Next is Aldridge, whose 15.8 points would be his lowest average since his rookie season but is starting to figure it out.
“LaMarcus is more and more comfortable every day,” Popovich said. “These are new players for him – new offense, new defense, everything is different. It’s difficult to do in your first year. A lot of guys take a whole year to get used to that. I think he’s been remarkable in catching on this quickly. He’s become more demonstrative and he’s going to get the basketball and not waiting for a call or anything like that. He’s inserted himself into the offense much better.”
“He’s asking questions and I’m constantly trying to help him through certain situations,” guard Danny Green said. “He is picking it up fast. He is buying in. He is becoming comfortable and playing his game.”
Next are Parker at 12.4 points and Ginobili at 10.1 points. Duncan is fifth at a career-low 8.7 points, and his 7.0 shots per game actually is seventh on the Spurs, also trailing Patty Mills (7.4) and Danny Green (7.3).
But the scariest numbers may be these: Aside from the 24-year-old Leonard at 33.4 minutes, no one on the Spurs is playing more than 30 per game. Aldridge is at 29.6, Parker is at 26.8, Ginobili is at 19.7 and Old Man Riverwalk is at 26.2. All of those are virtual career lows and should allow each player to go longer in the postseason, when there are no back-to-back games.
This is not to say that the Spurs are better than the Warriors.
Right now, the location of the Larry O’Brien Trophy and the standings say they are not. And there are four regular-season games between the teams (the first is Jan. 25) and a likely meeting in the Western Conference finals that will sort that out.
But the Spurs are not going away, even though Duncan eventually will.
TRIVIA: San Antonio’s 20-0 home record matches the second-best home start ever by a Western Conference team. Which West team has the best home start? Answer below.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: San Antonio Spurs assistant Ettore Messina, playing dumb when meeting the media following the ejection of coach Gregg Popovich:
“I don’t know how to do this thing here. I talk? I say something?”
TANKS A LOT!: The Boston Celtics own Brooklyn’s unprotected first-round pick but haven’t helped themselves by losing twice to the Nets. But they caught an unfortunate break in Saturday’s home loss when Nets point guard Jarrett Jack went down for the season with a torn ACL. That leaves the NBA’s third-worst team with a point guard tandem of journeymen Shane Larkin and Donald Sloan. The teams meet for the final time this season Monday in Brooklyn.
LINE OF THE WEEK: Jimmy Butler, Chicago at Toronto, Jan. 3: 39 minutes, 15-23 FGs, 2-3 3-pointers, 10-11 FTs, four rebounds, five assists, one block, one steal, three turnovers, 42 points in a 115-113 win. In the first half, Butler was 1-of-4 and took a shot to the mouth that drew blood and needed a stitch to close. In the second half, Butler erupted for 40 points, breaking Michael Jordan’s team record for points in a half. His 3-pointer with 30 seconds left gave Chicago the lead for good and allowed him to bump Draymond Green’s 29-17-14 triple-double from this space, which would have been Golden State’s sixth entry in 10 weeks.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Kyle Korver, Atlanta at Houston, Dec. 29: 31 minutes, 0-11 FGs, 0-10 3-pointers, 2-2 FTs, three rebounds, four assists, one block, four fouls, two points in a 121-115 win. It takes a lot for us to include a player from a winning team in this category, but Korver fits the bill. His 0-of-10 from distance followed an 0-of-8 the previous night and was part of an incomprehensible 20 straight misses from the arc for one of the league’s best shooters.
TRILLION WATCH: Another very strong week for the heroes of zeros. Let’s start with the near miss by Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich, who ruined a perfectly good 9 trillion with an assist Monday vs. Toronto. Among actual trillions, there were 2 trillions from Cavs guard Jared Cunningham on Tuesday and Jazz forward Elijah Millsap on Friday and 3 trillions from Bucks center Miles Plumlee on Tuesday and Pistons guard Reggie Bullock on Thursday. Raptors forward James Johnson crashed the season leaderboard with a 5 trillion Friday vs. Charlotte. But the week’s best lack of effort went to Suns guard Bryce Cotton with a 6 trillion Thursday at Oklahoma City. Congratulations to all our participants!
GAME OF THE WEEK: Chicago at Atlanta, Jan. 9. As the week begins, the Bulls have overtaken the Hawks for second place in the East and the unofficial title of the team mostly likely to face Cleveland in the conference finals. This is the first of four meetings between the teams. The Bulls are under .500 on the road, while the Hawks already have matched last season’s total of six losses at home.
GAME OF THE WEAK: LA Lakers at Sacramento, Jan. 7. This hasn’t been a good game for about 10 years and is made even worse by the fact that it is on TNT. Unless the network airs a rerun of Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference finals, it looks like a good night to catch up on sleep.
TWO MINUTES: On Saturday, Stephen Curry extended his 3-point streak to 104 games – barely. Coming off a two-game absence due to a shin injury, Curry started and missed his first two shots from the arc before draining one late in the first half and missing two more. Curry then sat out the second half after taking a shot to the same spot in the leg. It marked just the second time this season Curry has been held to one 3-pointer; he was 1-of-4 vs. Cleveland on Christmas. … The Clippers swept a five-game road trip for the first time in franchise history and did so without star forward Blake Griffin. “It’s big for our confidence and our team morale,” point guard Paul said. “We’re a much better team with Blake, but being able to do this without him gives us a little more confidence.” Last season, Griffin missed 15 games and the Clippers went 9-6 without him. … The top three teams in the NBA standings – Golden State, San Antonio and Cleveland – are a combined 50-1 at home. … Is Adam Silver clairvoyant? In the first season after the NBA commissioner announced that winning a division would have no bearing on playoff seeding, the three division races in the Western Conference are pretty much over. All three first-place teams have larger leads than the combined margins in the three East divisions. … Last week, our Rookie Rankings took a look at first-year players who have gotten unexpected opportunities when veterans have gone down with injuries. We probably overlooked Bulls forward Bobby Portis, who played just 26 minutes in the first 24 games but averaged 10.4 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 48.6 percent in 21 minutes over the next eight contests. He even has made 5-of-11 3-pointers. “We’re going to continue to find minutes for Bobby,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “There is no doubt about it. He’s playing too well.” … The Suns are a mess. This weekend, they allowed 142 points to the Kings, then shot 9-of-46 for a franchise-low 22 points in the first half vs. the Lakers. Last week’s coaching staff shakeup has had no effect. Their current skid of nine games is the longest this season by any team other than the Sixers. They are just two games ahead of the last-place Lakers in the West. They have a lame-duck coach. And they have three players making at least $13 million annually on the books through 2019. Owner Robert Sarver has a theory about what has gone wrong. “My whole view of the millennial culture is that they have a tough time dealing with setbacks, and Markieff Morris is the perfect example,” Sarver told the Arizona Republic. “He had a setback with his brother in the offseason and he can’t seem to recover from it.” … There have been two games this season in which a player had at least 35 points, five rebounds, five assists and two blocks, and Hornets guard Kemba Walker has them both. … When Bulls guard Derrick Rose went for 25 points at Dallas and 20 vs. Toronto, it marked the first time he scored at least 20 points in consecutive regular-season games since Feb. 10-12 last season, although he did do it in the 2015 postseason. So of course, Rose missed the next three games with right knee soreness and is scheduled for an MRI on Monday. That’s the knee with the meniscus tear, not the torn ACL. I’m sorry, but it’s time to stop waiting for Rose to return to superstar status. It’s never going to happen.
Trivia Answer: The 1977-78 Portland Trail Blazers won their first 26 home games. … Happy 55th Birthday, Sidney Green, the pride of Thomas Jefferson High in Brooklyn, New York. … Maybe the Oklahoma City Thunder’s alternate uniforms haven’t been well-received because they are the same color as Donald Trump’s face.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.