On Tim Duncan and the Spurs' Insurmountable Western Conference Lead

Hey Pounders, it's Stampler. Please don't call me Stampizzle or Stampeezie or anything like that because it's even more ridiculous than my pseudonym stolen from a fictional serial killer.

Anyway, like most of you, I've taken in these two opening Spurs games and I thought I'd share some observations. No promises or commitments how often I'll do this, so take that with a grain of salt.

1. Tim Duncan is not normal.

As fans who've watched basketball and other, lesser, sports for a long time, we've long been accustomed to the sad sight of our favorite athletes and our hated ones alike growing older, slower, and wider over the years. It happens to everybody, and we always make excuses for it, because it happens to us non-athletes too.

"Oh, everyone's metabolism changes as we get older," or "It's harder to stay in shape after 30."

Here's a story, I don't remember if I've shared it before. Back in 1996, the first time I attended SDSU, I went see a Giants-Padres game at old Jack Murphy Stadium (where the San Diego Chargers still play to this day, though they call it Qualcomm Stadium now I think).

Being Giants fans, a friend and I decided it'd be a great idea to heckle Tony Gwynn, who was, at that stage of his career, basically the same shape as the objects he was trying to hit with his bat.

Gwynn grounded out to third or something and I yelled, "Hey Tony, you'd have made it to first on time if there was a donut waiting for you."

A group of Padres fans turned around, mouths agape, like I just made a joke about violating his daughter or something. These same people routinely spent eight innings twiddling their thumbs and then cheering like maniacs at "Hells Bells" when Trevor Hoffman would come in to get a save and were never, ever shocked that the "Guess the attendance" multiple choice question always had the highest number as the answer.

Padres fans are the worst.

Where was I? Oh right. Roly-poly Gwynn defended his rotundness to critics by saying, "This is just how my body is, I can't do anything about it" and citing his stats and everyone went about their business.

But it's not just baseball players where this sort of thing gets overlooked. It happens in basketball (Shaq, Shawn Kemp, Lamar Odom, Antoine Walker, Aryvdas Sabonis are just five examples off the top of my head) and football, where Donovan McNabb looked like a beached whale by the end, and lots of linemen on both sides of the ball get fat and sloppy.

If an athlete is still kicking around after 35, they're allowed to get as big as they want and nobody gives them any flak for it. We actually make excuses for them, pretending they've put on muscle, not fat.

Frankly I've never bought in to this line of thinking. It's one thing for regular people to put on weight as they age. We have jobs and families and kids and less time to exercise.

Athletes though, are paid outrageous sums of money to basically exercise competitively in public. They have ABSOLUTELY ZERO excuse to ever not be in optimal shape. A fat athlete would be the equivalent of a writer just turning in Dr. Seuss books as columns.

"Manu's winding layup left defenders bamboozled. They were gobsmacked, dumbfounded and gazdoozled."

Okay, so that's pretty much what I do. Bad example. Still, you look at Tim Duncan now, at 36 years old, and it seems like every year the guy gets skinnier, not fatter. He is doing everything humanly possible (and yes, there are uncomfortable implications there that we can't ignore) to not go gently, quietly off into that good night.

Why? Because Tim Duncan is an effing professional athlete, that's why, when so many of his peers have no idea what that title, that responsibility, truly means.

After more than holding his own with uber-athletic rookie Anthony Davis on opening night, Duncan came back 24 hours later against the hated Thunder and was the best player on the floor, if not for the whole game then at least the first half.

He swatted away dunk attempts by Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka (the latter of which was completely ignored by broadcasters Kevin Harlan and Reggie Miller even though it was way more impressive than the Durant one) and threw down a vicious dunk on Ibaka on the other end that no 36-year-old should be able to do.

It's always funny whenever I hear some media dope, whether it's on TV, a column or a podcast, dismiss Duncan as some guy who does it all just with veteran savvy and "The Big Fundamental" and all that nonsense. He is still a phenomenal athlete, even with a bad knee, far more agile and coordinated than all but three or four centers in the league.

In fact, right now, which center would you rather have for the 2012-2013 season than Duncan?

Bynum is injured. Howard is barely able to jump off the floor. Duncan is healthier than both, passes it better than Bynum and shoots it better than Howard. Even at 36, he's the best big man in the league and a legit top-seven NBA player.

I'm never going to take watching Tim Duncan for granted and I hope none of you do either.

2. The Spurs had no business winning last night.

That's pretty much what Russell Westbrook contributed to the game, right there. He was, with all apologies to Tony and Tim, the single biggest reason the Spurs won.

Forget the final atrocious stat line, in which Westbrook finished 6-of-21 for 18 points, with five assists and six turnovers. Just look at all he did in the final 48 seconds of the game to choke it away.

First, he missed a point blank layup with 47 seconds to go. Yes, Tony was tugging at his jersey just a bit, but not enough to really affect the shot for a big, strong dude like Russell. He makes that and it's a five point lead and game over.

Then he fouls Parker in a situation where he really didn't have to. Let him go by for a layup attempt and at worst OKC still has the ball and a one point lead with about 35 seconds left.

On the ensuing possession Russ loses Parker, is late to recover, and boom, a corner three to tie it up at 84.

Now it's Thunder ball, 28 seconds to go, and at worst they should get a good shot attempt and give the Spurs very little time to tie or win.

What winds up happening is Westbrook wastes most of the possession, makes a soft pass to Durant -- with Kawhi Leonard, the NBA's steals leader lurking -- with three whole seconds left on the shot clock. Even without Leonard's inevitable steal, Durant would've been in a tough position to create much of a quality attempt (though they're all quality when he's shooting them I suppose).

The final possession, five seconds to go. I tweeted that it would be an off-balance fadeaway 20-footer for Parker. I was way off, as it was more of a 21-footer, with his feet well under him.

Westbrook lost Parker so badly on the play that he would've needed a GPS to find him. It was embarrassing, careless defense, there's no other way to put it. He singlehandedly lost the game for his team.

Obviously you can't make too much of the second game of the season, but they all count the same in the standings, and who knows, maybe this will be the one that will wind up being the difference in a tiebreaker. The Thunder proved that they don't need home court to beat the Spurs in the playoffs -- just the refs on their side -- but if a rematch comes to pass, I'd much rather have it fall under the same scenario than with those buggers having home court.

3. Standings blip aside, that was a meaningless game.

What an awful game that was, especially in the second half. Just an absolute rock fight. Sure, you could take an optimistic point of view that the Spurs played great defense, but honestly I think both teams just missed a lot of open shots.

It seemed jarring to watch, considering these were the two most efficient offenses in the league last season, but for all intents and purposes that was a preseason game, one that, especially from the Thunder perspective, had no bearing in reality.

Besides officiating the two biggest reasons the Spurs lost to OKC last season were A) Pop's confidence in the role players eroded so quickly that we were pretty much down to a seven-man rotation by the end and B) Our supposed biggest advantage, depth, could never assert itself against the Thunder's weak bench because their best players never actually stopped playing.

Westbrook and Durant always played 42-plus minutes and KD in particular played all 48 in the deciding game because he's an alien. It's one thing to harangue our bench if they played worse than their second-team counterparts, quite another to get on them for not getting the job done against opposing starters.

Well here, in their season opener, Durant played 41 minutes and Westbrook 37, and there was a five minute chunk during the game where neither was on the floor. The Spurs were only +4 in those five minutes, but it was without Ginobili, so it probably would've been more like + infinity if he was in there. Nevertheless, five minute windows like that won't exist against the Thunder in the playoffs. If they need to win, Durant will play. We know that now.

That being said, I'd love to play these guys in the playoffs. That baffling Harden trade doomed them. Just killed them. As Spurs fans, we're well familiar with the Kevin Martin experience. He's a good shooter, but nowhere near the player that Harden is. He can't pass it as well, can't get to the rim as well, can't draw fouls as well and can't guard nearly as well. In fact, I'd say defense is the biggest disparity between the two and it's not like Harden was an All-NBA defender. Martin is just that horrific.

In a playoff meeting, the Thunder will pretty much have to pick their poison between Tony and Manu, sticking Sefolosha on one or the other. Whoever the Swiss Miss doesn't take, will get to feast on Martin or Westbrook. I'm giddy.

4. The Spurs should be improved defensively this season.

You know the biggest reason the defense suffered in past seasons? I've got a radical theory on it, so bear with me.

The team was giving crappy defensive players big minutes.

Crazy, right?

But yeah, you play guys like DeJuan Blair, Roger Mason Jr., Richard Jefferson and Gary Neal (at point guard) big minutes and you better have an extremely efficient offense on the other end or you're sunk.

It was so comically bad at times that we thought of a broken down Antonio McDyess, Keith Bogans and George Hillas our good defenders. Hell, even Bonner is viewed as a plus defender, as long as he's not paired with Blair.

We saw the vast improvement late last season with the acquisitions of Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw, and we'll have full seasons of those two this time around.

Diaw doesn't look like much of an athlete, but he's the most agile post defender to start alongside Duncan in years. Jackson is a physical guy on the wing who doesn't shy away from a challenge the way RJ did routinely. He can handle his business in the paint and is excellent at ball denial (see his work on Durant down the stretch).

Neal can be relatively hidden if you have him guard opposing shooting guards, but I don't know how realistic that concept will be with Manu coming back, and I doubt he'll be taken out of the rotation, even though I think that would be the best solution defensively, with Mills taking his minutes and really pressuring the ball.

I mean, there is a streamlined nine-man rotation we can put on the floor (three bigs) where everyone is an average or better defender. To play it, Pop would have to trust Tiago more and Neal less, but it is available. Will we ever go to it? Doubtful.

5. Pop still hates Tiago Splitter.

Don't pretend otherwise, not for a second. Pop thinks he's soft, physically and mentally, and he's trying everything he can to bury the Brazilian like a dog would a bone.

The only reason Splitter played last year was out of necessity. Remember, we had a truncated season where, if I remember correctly, we had some six-games-in-seven-nights stretches and a couple of day-night doubleheaders.

We didn't have Diaw most of the year nor Jackson. We had four "bigs" counting Blair and Bonner (LOL). Jefferson wasn't much of a viable small-ball option at the four (unless he's playing for the Lynx or the Liberty) and Duncan needed to keep his minutes down in many games or to sit some out entirely.

Splitter had to play, and as luck would have it he played so well that even Pop noticed, begrudgingly, tossing out compliments like "He has no talent whatsoever, but he sure is a good pro like Oberto."

Now though, Pop's got options. He's got two guys he can play small with in Jackson and Leonard, and a big he can leave on the floor with Duncan who's neither Blair nor Splitter. You might as well have a Robert Mondavi delivery van break down on Pop's driveway, he's so happy.

I'm hopeful the pending return of Manu will slap Pop into reality but really I wouldn't be surprised if they just trade Splitter at some point. You just know they're going to call up McDyess out of retirement and make us all barf.

6. The Red Rocket is in vintage playoff form.

Seriously dude, what the hell is that? Don't you have any pride at all? At this point I'd prefer Mitch from Modern Family as the team's token redhead. Just retire already if you're afraid to do anything.

7. I'm so glad we've signed Nando de Colo and Cory Joseph.

Kids are getting valuable minutes up here with the big club aren't they? I'm sure it will serve them well. Who needs bigs when you have 13 guards? I feel like Pop trusts maybe five guys on the roster, and I'm probably being generous.

De Colo is one thing. He's got some skills, Manu is old and injury prone and Neal is undersized and on the last year of his deal.

Joseph though, is a signing I don't get. You've got Mills and Neal ahead of him, De Colo and Ginobili can both run point in a pinch and Parker gets the lion's share of the minutes. Do you really need another point guard?

I'd rather have kept Curry, and I think Curry blows.

8. So much for the Leonard hype.

We were told in the off-season that he'd be handling the ball more, that we'd be running pick-and-rolls with him and that he'd be more of a featured guy on offense.

HAHAHAHA.

Nah, kid, we were just messing with you. Just stand in the corner in the half court, run the floor on fast breaks and crash the boards when you can. Oh and use your 17-foot-long arms to steal the ball a bunch because how else are we supposed to get stops with Danny Green leaving shooters wide open all over the place?

To be fair, Leonard started slowly last season too, so I'm not really worried about his game or his flat jumper right now. I just know I haven't seen any of the plays with him that we saw in summer league and oh god that looks so stupid as I type it.

9. Yes, I noticed Parker has made some clutch shots.

I'm happy he made them. I'm not sure how sustainable it is to rely on Parker threes to win games though. I'd rather just be up 20 points if it's okay with y'all.

10. I miss Manu Ginobili.

Play already, you big-nosed dork.

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